How these VCU researchers are learning to detect Alzheimers, dementia early on

Posted at 6:48 PM, Feb 28, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-28 18:56:46-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- An important life rule: never underestimate a hallway conversation.

Two VCU researchers said the hallways at the School of Nursing served as a launch point for a study that aims to determine physical precursors in dementia and cognitive impairment patients.

Dr. Lana Sargent and Dr. Jane Chung both focus their work at the school on aging populations, so they teamed up on a $3 million study funded by the National Institutes of Health.

The researchers plan to use wearable health devices to track movement data of participants over several years with the goal of finding specific declines in movement function that could be early indicators of dementia.


Determining physical precursors of the disease can hopefully lead to early intervention and dispel some of the fears surrounding cognitive decline, the researchers said.

"We do have more control than we ever knew before about prevention. Part of what we are doing is trying to understand what aspects of physical function we can intervene on that potentially would change the trajectory for people," Dr. Sargent said.

"There is a stigma around the diagnosis of dementia. We know that. We also know the decline in physical function in older adults is signaling some kind of decline in their memory or thinking abilities," Dr. Chung said.

Dr. Jane Chung

Studies have found that physical abilities begin to decline in some dementia patients well before any memory or mood changes become apparent, the researchers said. Participants in the study will wear the devices for a seven-day period every six months for about three years.

The devices capture extensive data about a person's movement along several different axis points — basically several different angles — throughout the day, as well as GPS data.

That information, when tracked over time for multiple patients, will likely reveal specific changes in daily movement in patients who end up experiencing cognitive impairment, the researchers said.

“This is a concept we call life-space mobility," Sargent said. "You can actually think about it as concentric circles around your center of the home and how that changes and flexes based on what’s going on with your health or what’s going on with your cognition.”

Dr. Lara Sargent

"When someone starts to have memory decline, the way they think about organizing their space changes or go about organizing their day changes, so your movement within that space changes," she said.

The clinical method for diagnosing dementia and cognitive impairment involves medical imaging and testing over time, an expensive process that requires the ability to travel to a medical facility.

Many older Americans in vulnerable populations cannot afford to go through with it or lack access to resources, the researchers said.

While the outcomes will not replace medical diagnosis, the study also seeks to address that issue.

“Racial or ethnic minorities, people who are living on a low income, who are medically and socially vulnerable, are at greater risk of dementia and cognitive impairment because they have multiple chronic health conditions and lack resources to take care of their health," Chung said. "We cannot change where they live or what they eat or who they meet, but if we find something about their physical function, that could be made available then we could develop some really amazing programs.”

Sargent and Chung hope to develop specific interventions related to movement indicators of dementia in order to prevent or slow symptoms before memory or mood decline in patients begins in earnest.

Many times, by the time someone is diagnosed, they are too far along for interventions to fully help.

A published review by researchers found that the evidence was “encouraging but inconclusive” that interventions could stave off dementia.

This study aims to advance that understanding of a disease that already impacts more than 15% of those 65 and older in the Richmond region, according to studies.

That number is only expected to grow in the coming years.

“By 2050, dementia will double in terms of what we see as far as diagnosis for it [now]," Sargent said.

The researchers reiterated that dementia and other forms of cognitive impairment should not be written off as a normal part of aging.

The data collected as a part of the study will be provided to the participants and their families as a way of empowering their own healthcare decisions.

It's something several of the people already enrolled mentioned when signing up.

"Oh, I can wear this watch, I want to see my data, and I want to know what’s going on in my health," Chung said about their conversations with participants.

"This is a complex disease that’s been around a long time. It’s not going away any time soon, so if we don’t get people involved in trying to understand it, we’ll never figure it out," Sargent said.

The study is currently enrolling participants, who must be 65 years or older and live in the greater Richmond region. Leaders are looking for people who either show no signs or minor signs of cognitive decline.

Several dozen people have signed up for the study, but they are looking to enroll more than 300 participants.

All data collected will be provided to the individual if requested, but none of the raw data identifies the individual. The researchers said data privacy is a major consideration in the study.

Those interested in participating in the study can contact team members at 804-828-5930 or send an email to for more information.

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