Numbers game: What our frailty score might say about dementia risk

Could mathematical models tracking our aging bodies’ creaks, cracks and breakdowns shed light on our Alzheimer’s risk? That’s what Joshua Armstrong is trying to find out.

With a post-doctoral grant from the Alzheimer Society Research Program, Armstrong is crunching numbers and building a “frailty index” — a characterization of health status based on the “accumulation of health deficits” — so researchers can better understand the relationship between how well our bodies hold up in later life and the impact on our brain power.

“We want to know how general health relates to cognition and brain health,” Armstrong said. “Often these two have been thought of separately, stemming from the separation of mind and body.”

While much of the focus on Alzheimer’s and dementia research has been on cognition and the brain, Armstrong said recent epidemiological research, which looks at the patterns, causes and effects of disease in a given population, points to “a strong connection” between physical health and cognition. Armstrong, who had a propensity for math as a young student, said frailty status can be estimated using a simple count.

“You’re basically counting up the number of health deficits, a number of problems a person might have,” he explained. Take, for example, having dentures. In a 2011 study, poor denture fit was listed among a spectrum of general health issues along with foot pain and vision trouble which, when considered in unison, showed higher risk for dementia and death for subjects who had more things wrong with them.

Joshua Armstrong at AAIC 2013

“It’s not that the problem with dentures causes Alzheimer’s,” he said. “It’s the accumulation of those bad things.”

The data Armstrong is analyzing comes from a longitudinal study following 4,000 men in Hawaii. The subjects’ overall health and cognitive abilities were tested every few years.

The $81,000 Armstrong received for his project from the Alzheimer Society Research Program allowed him to go directly to Dalhousie University after earning his PhD in Aging, Health and Well-being at the University of Waterloo.

“It supplies my salary, and without this funding I might not have had this opportunity to work with these leading experts in the field,” he said. “I’m grateful I was able to start post-doctoral work without any interruption.”

Many researchers like Joshua Armstrong would not be able to continue their work without the support of the Alzheimer Society Research Program. Our ability to fund researchers depends on the generosity of our donors. Make a donation today; let’s keep research going.

Learn more about the
Alzheimer Society Research Program.

Last Updated: 11/08/2017