How can data help prevent dementia?
4 April 2022
Data is an invaluable resource that can provide insights into health from a population level right down to each individual within it. By looking for trends in datasets, data scientists can answer questions such as how likely certain people are to get dementia, what the typical biological hallmarks of dementia are, and even detect the earliest signs that an individual’s health is deteriorating.
Researchers scour huge datasets from whole populations to find links between dementia and certain behaviours or diseases. If people with a certain medical condition are more likely to get dementia, then treating that condition may help prevent dementia. Health conditions that have already been shown to be associated with dementia include high blood pressure, diabetes, and depression.
Through large-scale data analysis, The Lancet has identified 12 modifiable risk factors that make someone more likely to develop dementia. The list includes lifestyle factors like smoking and not doing enough physical activity, and can be used to endorse public health campaigns, such as those that encourage people to exercise more or quit smoking.
Another example is this study investigating the link between hearing loss, hearing aids, and mild cognitive impairment, which was co-authored by Dr Magda Bucholc from Ulster University and Dr Sarah Bauermeister, Senior Scientist and Data Manager at DPUK. By analysing health data from 4,358 people, the researchers found that people with hearing loss were at significantly higher risk of developing mild cognitive impairment than people with normal hearing, unless they wore their hearing aids. Identifying trends like this informs key public health messaging – like the benefits of wearing hearing aids – which can ultimately help prevent cognitive decline and dementia.
Biomarkers of dementia are biological features such as abnormal proteins or changes in the brain that indicate that someone has or is developing dementia. Researchers are currently trying to detect these features – especially those occurring in the very early stages of the condition – so that they can be used as a potential target for treatment and prevention.
But biomarkers can only be established by looking at measurements from lots of different people to make sure they are accurate. So, DPUK’s Deep and Frequent Phenotyping (DFP) study is collecting detailed and varied measurements from 250 people with a family history of dementia to create a database that researchers can analyse to track the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Once DFP scientists have identified the best early warning signs of the disease, they can try to develop early-stage treatments to stave off dementia. These markers will also help researchers find out, quickly and early, if a potential treatment is working.
Tracking how someone’s individual data changes over time can highlight when things are starting to decline so that they can be helped as early as possible. By monitoring key aspects of health using wearable technology, algorithms can detect whether patterns are developing that resemble biomarkers of dementia. This information could then be used to administer treatment interventions at the optimal time for them to have the best chance of being effective. An example of this comes from a study within DFP, which identified gait as a potential biomarker of dementia by using a wearable monitor that continuously assessed participants’ walking style.
Understandably, many people are concerned about data security, and the potential for their data to be abused if it is not kept safe. To overcome this danger, DPUK created the DPUK Data Portal, which is a secure repository of anonymised data run in partnership with the globally renowned Secure eResearch Platform (SeRP) based at Swansea University.
Researchers from anywhere in the world can apply for free access to the 50+ cohort datasets securely stored in the Data Portal. Once approved, the researchers are then able to analyse that data on the platform, without ever downloading it to an external device.
Resources like the DPUK Data Portal not only safeguard against the misuse of data but also facilitate the advancement of dementia science through free, supported access to huge amounts of data.