New project to aid in identifying people at risk for Alzheimer's disease

April 08, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When is forgetfulness a sign of impending Alzheimer’s disease? A Penn State research project funded by a $1.6 million grant from the National Institute on Aging (NIA) could lead to earlier identification of people at risk for the disease and provide guidance for people concerned about their own memory loss.

“While many people experience memory lapses as they age, traditional measures cannot determine who will experience significant cognitive decline,” said Jacqueline Mogle, principal investigator on the project and assistant research professor at the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center.

“There’s a stereotype that once you have memory problems, it’s all downhill,” she said. “It would be beneficial for older adults to have more nuanced information.”

The researchers plan to analyze both the frequency and consequences of memory loss in older adults. They will examine daily diary data from two NIA-funded studies to determine which characteristics are the best predictors of future cognitive decline. During these studies, approximately 500 people ages 50-85 answered questions about their daily experiences with memory, using a mobile phone app. Over the course of 14 days, participants indicated on a checklist which common memory problems they experienced that day, such as misplacing something, forgetting to take a medication or to run an errand. They were also asked to report on how much forgetting that thing bothered them or how much it interfered with their daily activities.

The research team will then use the data to generate profiles that indicate the likelihood of the onset of cognitive decline, based upon a person’s age, sex and other factors, including health history, current health status, personality attributes and life events. Their findings could inform the development of potential tools for clinicians, such as a flow chart with screening questions designed to efficiently direct patients to the services that would be most beneficial. Based upon the flow chart, they could potentially recommend one or more avenues that might include further testing, or consulting a mental health professional — or they could potentially reassure the patient that they are experiencing the kinds of memory loss that could be expected for someone with their age profile.

Mogle suggested that the research might also lead to a protocol for patients to report on their memory loss while going about their daily activities, providing a more complete picture — much like how wearing a heart monitor or blood pressure cuff for a few days provides more data upon which to make decisions.

“We want to help medical providers to focus on the whole person,” she added.

Penn State researchers on the project include Nikki Hill, project’s co-investigator and assistant professor in the College of Nursing; and Martin Sliwinski, director of the Center for Healthy Aging. Collaborators also include Laura Rabin, professor, Brooklyn College; and Robert Stawski, associate professor, Oregon State University.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 09, 2020