New mobile game Sea Hero Quest helps fight dementia

The world's first mobile game developed to fight dementia has come up with a controversial piece of research.

The game, called Sea Hero Quest, has found men are better navigators than women. It's also found we Kiwis are pretty good on the water.

The game features an ageing sailor who's lost his memories, and his son's quest to recover them, battling fantastical sea creatures along the way.

It is not only fun; it's also been designed to help dementia research. Understanding how people navigate 3D environments is key, as getting lost is one of the first signs of the disease.

Associate Professor Duncan Babbage is director of the AUT Centre for eHealth.

"By having a whole series of tasks that are specifically drawing on different aspects of navigation, this game is trying to determine what's the variation in the general population," Prof Babbage tells Newshub.

As you move around the game, the route you take gets relayed back to the scientists and they can see it like a heat map. The game records every player's sense of direction and navigational abilities.

Scientists at University College in London have studied the outcomes of those games to find out what they tell us about the human brain.

They found people from New Zealand, Australia, North America and the Nordic countries are the best navigators. People in wealthier countries tend to be better navigators.

They also found sense of direction declines with age. Men are better navigators than women, but that difference is very small in countries where there is greater gender equality.

"The ageing questions are more compelling," Prof Babbage says. "They showed that navigational abilities are something that decline over time."

What's remarkable is the vast amount of data collected. This study analysed data from over half a million people in 57 countries.

"The number of people they've got to play the game is very impressive and it's a sample that's very rare," Prof Babbage says.

The game makers are hoping all that data will help set a global benchmark, an average that dementia patients can be measured against, especially when they're detecting early-onset dementia.

"That's very important - that's one of the things that a lot of research is focused on at the moment," says Catherine Hall, CEO of Alzheimers NZ.

With cases of dementia expected to triple to 170,000 by 2050, this huge and unusual source of data could be a valuable future tool for the healthcare industry.

Just like the boy who saved his father's memories, now you can save the memories of the future.