Can A High School Test Predict If We Get Alzheimer’s?

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Photo by Gerd Altmann on

Getting dementia and Alzheimer’s is a terrifying prospect. It can also be bankrupting if you require lengthy home or institutional care.

So when the Washington Post published a story about a test predicting our risk of Alzheimer’s as far back as adolescence, I was intrigued.  A half a million kids took the test, so now we have definitive data on whether we’ll get Alzheimer’s? Let’s have a look at that test!

Well, they give some sample questions in the Washington Post article, but nobody really wants to sit through a two-day test that somebody cooked up in the 1960’s when Dick and Jane books were seriously how we learned to read. Or we would, if it would really predict our chances of getting a dread disease.

What the researchers found after tracking down the test participants using their fifty-year high school reunions was that lower scores in mechanical performance predicted about 17% more risk of dementia for men, while lower scores in verbal memory predicted about 16% of the risk for women. Remember, these kids were tested for two days, covering almost twenty different subjects. So my first impression was that they gathered lots of data, found a couple of significant numbers, and published those. The summary makes it look like cherry picking for publication.

But looking at the full JAMA study, it wasn’t just those two areas that showed a connection. The same results held about at about 12% for almost all the different tests. So doing poorly on this test did increase the subjects’ risks of getting dementia. By about 12%, which isn’t that much, but also isn’t nothing. 

We may only be confirming what we already knew. (more)


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