Nearly 42,000 Irish residents are currently afflicted with Alzheimer's disease or another type of dementia. As our longevity increases, so does one's risk for developing Alzheimer's disease, since major symptoms typically begin to appear after age 65.
Staff at TILDA have, and continue to, cognitively tested people enrolled in their programme. Tests like the Mini Mental State Exam (MMSE), Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA), and Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART) measure aspects of the respondent's short- and long-term memory and attention span.
But even if respondents score poorly on these tests, it is not necessarily indicative that they are developing Alzheimer's disease.
Dr Barry Boland and Professor Brian Lawlor, based at St James Hospital and Trinity College Dublin, are co-ordinating the Irish wing of a major European initiative aimed at standardising and developing biomarker research in Alzheimer's disease.
Biomarkers found in spinal fluid, like beta-amyloid and tau, more accurately correlate with cognitive impairment than blood biomarkers. Combined with an MRI of the brain, these biomarkers help to determine if a person has or is developing Alzheimer's disease.
In countries like Sweden and Germany, it is standard practice for patients exhibiting cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer's disease to undergo a spinal tap. By looking at biomarker levels in a patient's spinal fluid, doctors can determine if they display hallmarks of Alzheimer's disease.
Dr Boland and Professor Lawlor are examining samples of spinal fluid from patients who already suffer from Alzheimer's disease.
They will be able to compare these samples to those of other ethnicities throughout Europe.
Ultimately, TILDA hopes that some respondents who exhibit no signs of cognitive impairment will volunteer to have a sample of spinal fluid taken in the next wave of data collection to be undertaken in 2014.
This way, if participants develop Alzheimer's disease or another type of dementia, TILDA researchers can determine if biomarkers changed in their spinal fluid before cognitive symptoms began. Researchers will also be able to compare their cognitive test scores with biomarker levels.
This will ultimately lead to a greater understanding of how changes in neurological biomarker levels correlate with disease onset and progression.
In patients who develop Alzheimer's disease, Professor Lawlor believes it is important, for those who are able, to exercise, reduce consumption of alcohol and remain sociable.
While not proven, high blood pressure and cholesterol can be risk factors.
So what is good for your heart can also be good for your brain.