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This Dementia-Simulating Helmet Shows You What It's Like to Have Disorienting Memory Loss

It's been said you can never really understand someone else until you've walked a mile in their shoes. Now, a new device takes that notion to heart by allowing you to walk a mile in someone else's head—specifically the head of a person who has dementia.

The Dementia Simulator is a helmet designed by Di Peng, a graduate student at Central Saint Martins, to give neurotypical people a peek into how dementia sufferers experience the world. The egg-shaped helmet fits entirely around the user's head, altering their sight, hearing, and speech in patterns similar to those of the illness. The earpieces, for example, distort incoming sound and play critical remarks, similar to the illnesses' characteristic auditory hallucinations. Then, the screen over the eyes blurs the environment, making it hard to recognize familiar faces—another hallmark of dementia. Lastly, the microphone mutes random words, making it hard for the person to speak clearly. Taken together, it can be a powerful tool to open people's eyes to how upsetting living with dementia can be.

When it comes to dementia, this little bit of empathy can go a long way toward understanding the struggle of the 47.5 million sufferers worldwide. And understanding is important because almost everyone has a loved one with the dreaded disease. Even if you don't, if you live to 80 (as most people in the U.S. now do), you have a one in four chance of getting dementia yourself. This makes dementia one of the leading causes of disability and dependency worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

Yet even though it is so common, it is still very misunderstood. For starters, "dementia" is a general term that simply means a deterioration in thinking and can include many different illnesses, of which Alzheimer's disease is just one. In addition, many people think that dementia is a normal part of life. But "although dementia mainly affects older people, it is not a normal part of ageing," according to the WHO.

This is exactly why Peng developed the helmet. "In order to weaken the stereotypes and misconceptions toward dementia patients, I believe we could use simulation and pretence as a method to further understand their inner world," he said. "Mostly, it enables the stakeholders around dementia patients, usually their family members or caretakers, to better understand dementia beyond what modern medicine could explain."