This article was originally published in Never Too Late (PCOA News). View the original article here.
The statistics are alarming Sixteen million older adults in the USA are currently experiencing problems with memory, attention, or decision making. As many as 1.6 million of these individuals may go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease every year. However, as frightening as these numbers may be, Alzheimer’s disease is not the inevitable end point of aging. In fact, the majority of older adults—approximately 85%—will not develop Alzheimer’s disease in their lifetime. Nevertheless, for many people, age-related cognitive impairment can have life-altering consequences including decreased work productivity, increased hospitalizations, decreased quality of life, and possibly even loss of independence.
There’s a long list of factors that can influence brain health as we age. These include lifestyle choices such as diet, physical activity, and the quality of social interactions, life stressors such as chronic illness, bereavement, and depression, diseases such as heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes, as well as demographic factors such as level of education and even our biological sex. We are also learning much more about genetic variants that either increase the negative effects of these risk factors or are protective against them.
Most often, scientific studies focus on a single risk factor at a time. Researchers may explore how a risk factor, such as depression or diabetes, affects memory and other cognitive functions, or how it impacts brain structure and function using magnetic resonance imaging. Or, they may consider how that factor increases the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. What we’ve learned collectively from all these studies can be summed up pretty easily – aging is complicated. No single risk factor can explain all age related cognitive impairment. And none of them have led to the discovery of a magic bullet, providing a sure-fire way to prevent or treat age-related cognitive impairment. The reason is also pretty simple: most of these risks apply to some, but not all, older adults.
Consider, for example, three individuals in their 70’s. One person has heart disease and high blood pressure. A second person is a caregiver who is living with chronic stress. The third person has an extensive family history of Alzheimer’s disease. All three people may be struggling with memory impairment that negatively affects their daily lives, but for very different reasons, each leading to very different types of brain injury. And, as a result, the interventions that may best help each of these three individuals will also be quite different.
Recently, my colleagues and I decided it was time to move away from the “one size fits all” view of aging. Instead of focusing on single risk factors, our research takes an individualized approach to understanding, preventing, and treating age-related cognitive impairment. Our goal is to consider the unique risk profile that best characterizes each individual, based on their health, lifestyle, and genetics. Then, based on that profile, we can create a customized treatment plan that will optimize brain health and maintain cognitive functioning throughout their life. That’s a lofty goal, but one that has the potential to extend independent living, improve quality of life, and, hopefully, decrease the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
The National Institute on Aging thought it was a pretty good idea too. Last year, researchers at the University of Arizona were awarded a $60M grant to establish the Precision Aging Network in partnership with top-ranked research institutions across the USA including the University of Miami, Johns Hopkins University, Emory University, Georgia State University, and the Translational Genomics Institute in Phoenix Arizona. Our hope is that the “precision aging approach” – considering each individual as unique – will lead to novel advances the understanding, prevention, and treatment of age-related cognitive impairment.
In this monthly column, I’ll explore the precision aging concept. We’ll discuss the various factors that may increase risk or protect against age-related cognitive impairment. We’ll consider some of the promising new interventions that may help maintain brain health throughout our lives. And, I’ll update you on new scientific information that the Precision Aging Network is discovering, so that we can all move closer to our ultimate goal: Healthy Minds for Life.