Vancouver teen develops app to help detect Alzheimer's disease in seniors

An eighteen-year-old Vancouver student has created a smartphone system that helps detect whether someone might have Alzheimer's disease.

Kai Leong, who just graduated from Killarney Secondary School, has developed an app that measures and analyzes a person's gait — the way they move while walking. 

"What a lot of people don't realize is that walking patterns are actually validated markers of neurodegenerative diseases," Leong told Renée Filippone, guest host of The Early Edition

"They're often overlooked because of how expensive and how inaccessible current walking analysis or gait analysis is." 

Because of this project, Leong was selected by Youth Science Canada to participate in the China Adolescent Science and Technology Innovation Contest in Macau, China. He is one of two Canadian students representing their country July 20 to 26. 

To get a gait reading using Leong's system, seniors can put the smartphone into their back pocket and walk. The app records their gait. Leong runs the recording though an algorithm he has created, and then compares the person's gait with those of people who have Alzheimer's and individuals who are cognitively healthy.

He says he's not trying to replace a gait lab which conducts such tests in an official medical setting, but rather offer an accessible and affordable option for early detection.

Maggie MacPherson/CBC

A family connection

For Leong, this project is very personal.

When he was in the seventh grade, Leong's grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Prior to her diagnosis, she was misdiagnosed with depression.

"I realized that this was a really scary reality for seniors across the world and seniors in Canada ... this issue of misdiagnosis with the current diagnostic tools."

He decided he was going to try to create something that could improve the accuracy of early diagnosis.

"As somebody who has had a loved one with Alzheimer's disease, I know all too well the struggles that come along with people being misdiagnosed and being diagnosed later on ... issues with treatment outcomes ... issues with quality of life."

The research, coding, testing and system-building was hard, and he came across a lot of bumps in the road. But those are all steps to success, says Leong. 

"We're often taught in school to strive for perfection ... So I would advise people to never be afraid to fail. It doesn't matter if it doesn't work the first time. Failure is often a stepping stone to success."

Listen to the full interview here:

With files from The Early Edition.