Researchers in Canada have created an easily accessible tool for people worried about the possibility of cognitive decline as they grow older. The online calculator is supposed to estimate the general risk of dementia for the average person 55 and older and is based on research published this month.
Dementia is a broad term for many conditions, linked by the usually worsening loss of cognitive functions like memory. The most common form, Alzheimer’s disease, is thought to affect 50 million people worldwide. Dementia is generally not curable once symptoms start, and it often leads to death. Our risk of dementia climbs the older we become, though there are some forms directly tied to inherited genetic mutations, which may occur earlier in life. But doctors do suspect there are many controllable aspects of our environment that influence dementia risk, and several studies have suggested over a third of cases could be preventable through changing these aspects for the better.
This new research, led by scientists at the University of Ottawa, builds on these earlier studies by trying to create a predictive algorithm for the short-term risk of dementia in the general population. It was created through studying the responses of 50,000 residents of Ontario, Canada, 55 years old and up, who were part of a long-running population study in which they answered basic questions about their current health and lifestyle. Their (anonymous) medical records were tracked following their participation in the study, which meant researchers could tell how many were diagnosed with dementia over the next five years. The researchers compared the people with dementia to those without to see which risk factors seemed to be most predictive and fed all this information into the algorithm. Then they tested out their calculations on another sample of 25,000 people and found that it was generally accurate in predicting a person’s dementia risk.
The study’s findings were published over the weekend in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, and the calculator can be accessed on their Project Big Life website. The website also contains similar tools for estimating life expectancy and risk of heart disease. (In a show of faith, perhaps, the bios of the research team include their life expectancy, presumably obtained through said tool.)
Among other things, the brief questionnaire used for the dementia calculator asks about suspected risk factors such as smoking history, level of physical activity, and other chronic illnesses. It then pops out a number from 1 to 100, estimating risk of dementia in the next five years, and provides a top three list of modifiable risk factors and possible ways to change them, along with links to further relevant information.
Though it’s based on scientific evidence, this calculator (and really any predictive algorithm) shouldn’t be interpreted as a sure thing. At best, it may provide a rough sense of general dementia risk, not a precise prediction, and it’s most accurate for the average person with no other hidden risk factors like family history or genetics. Indeed, the authors caution in their FAQ that their model simply can’t take genetics into account, since the survey data didn’t have that information available. People worried about the results they get from the calculator should talk with a medical provider about their brain health.