Delaware Center for Cognitive Aging Research opens at UD with focus on prevention

Retired University of Delaware College of Earth, Ocean and Environment professor Robert Biggs used to go fishing in Chesapeake City, Maryland, with his friend Rod. They reminisced about life and simply enjoyed each other’s company.

About a decade ago, Rod started experiencing early signs of cognitive impairment that Biggs noticed.

“Things like increased absent-mindedness, short-term memory loss, and finally, being unable to continue employment,” Biggs said.

But within three years, Biggs said his friend had advanced dementia and could no longer function independently. Rod went on to live another four years in a memory care unit before he died.

“It was very challenging to watch, very sad,” Biggs said.

His friend Rod’s cognitive deterioration inspired Biggs and his wife Wendy to become Alzheimer’s advocates for the aging population in Delaware. Through an organization called Wendy’s Warriors, the couple has mobilized their southern Delaware community and raised $100,000 over five years for Alzheimer’s research. They also linked up with the Swank Center for Memory Care and Geriatric Consultation at ChristianaCare, Delaware’s first and most comprehensive outpatient office for patients with memory disorders and their families, to raise awareness about Alzheimer’s in their 55+ older community in Millsboro.

Prior to watching the degenerative brain disease unfold in his dear friend and becoming an advocate, Biggs wasn’t as familiar with Alzheimer’s, though as many as 19,000 Delawareans are living with the disease, according to data from the Alzheimer’s Association. Regionally, as many as 600,000 people aged 65 and older have Alzheimer’s. Delaware is also a favorable state for retirees with its aging population predicted to grow, further showcasing the need for more outreach, education, advanced research and clinical training in Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders.

Christopher Martens, assistant professor in the Kinesiology and Applied Physiology Department and director of the Neurovascular Aging Laboratory, and Matthew Cohen, associate professor in the  Communication Sciences and Disorders Department, have founded the Delaware Center for Cognitive Aging Research, a first-of-its-kind initiative in the region, after recognizing this dire community need. The center received $150,000 in seed funding over three years from the College of Health Sciences Dean’s Office.

William Farquhar, associate dean of research for the College of Health Sciences, said the College is pleased to provide support to the new Delaware Center for Cognitive Aging Research.

“Drs. Martens and Cohen have done a terrific job launching this center,” Farquhar said. “There is a clear need for more research to understand aging-related cognitive decline, and this interdisciplinary center will facilitate innovative, patient-centered research.”

In addition to Martens and Cohen, Alyssa Lanzi, research assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders, Curtis Johnson, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, and Dr. James Ellison, the first Swank Foundation Endowed Chair in Memory Care and Geriatrics, serve on the center’s executive committee and have worked diligently to help the center become a reality.

“When someone has unequivocal signs of dementia, it’s relatively easy for them to connect with resources and care pathways,” Cohen said. “But there are far fewer resources and care pathways available for people experiencing early or ambiguous signs of Alzheimer’s disease. These people are important to identify and connect with cutting-edge interventions because their trajectory is modifiable. We’ve had people tell us: ‘I’ve watched my mother develop Alzheimer’s disease, and I’m worried that it’s inevitable for me.’”

But that concern isn’t necessarily founded in research.

“Having a family member who developed Alzheimer’s disease later in life actually doesn’t increase a person’s risk very much — only in cases where the family member developed the disease earlier in life does genetics play a strong role,” Cohen said.

Research shows 40% of Alzheimer’s cases can be prevented or delayed through modifiable risk factors like addressing possible hearing loss through hearing aids, staying physically active, addressing high blood pressure and depression, and eliminating smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.

“A lot of older adults have hearing loss that they’re not addressing, so simply by addressing this issue, you can potentially improve cognitive function,” Martens said. “If you can manage your blood pressure through medication and healthy diet and exercise, then that can have a profound effect on your later risk for Alzheimer’s.”

As a landmark facility in the region, the Delaware Center for Cognitive Aging Research seeks to educate the community on these modifiable risk factors and address mild cognitive impairment before it progresses to dementia. The center will also provide much-needed support and resources for UD faculty to study new preventative strategies for improving brain health.

“Historically, pharmaceutical trials for Alzheimer’s have focused more on reversing end-stage disease and have thus far been unsuccessful,” Martens said. “The field at large has started to shift towards studying earlier stages of the disease with a focus on Alzheimer’s prevention. Ideally, we would like to implement interventions in people who exhibit small cognitive deficits now so that we can hopefully slow disease progression and prevent larger deficits later.”

Biggs elected to participate in cognitive testing to determine if he was eligible for several Alzheimer’s-related clinical trials at UD, those of which are now affiliated with the center. It was there that he first learned of his own memory challenges and became involved in a clinical trial in the Resilient Cognitive Aging Lab with Lanzi.

“At the beginning of the interview, Alyssa said, ‘I want you to remember a small list of words.’ In five minutes, she’d ask again, and I could only remember a few of them,” Biggs said. “It’s clear to me that I have some short-term memory loss.”

Biggs has never been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and said he believes his short-term memory loss is just a sign of aging. He’s 85 years old now.

“It doesn’t affect me in my daily activities, and I have tremendous support from my wife,” Biggs said. “I have no physical impairments; I exercise regularly, play pickleball, and we’re intellectually active in our community. Both of us are fortunate not to have any physical or mental handicaps.”

The idea for the center was sparked through collaboration over several years after Martens noticed a need to expand access to research, and ultimately care, for people with mild cognitive impairment or mild memory deficits.

“We envision the center having a strong and active research arm, but also a clinical component that allows a two-way benefit to patients where they get information, but they also help further research on the disease at large,” said Martens.

The Delaware Center for Cognitive Aging Research will serve as an interdisciplinary resource, involving all the departments within the College of Health Sciences as well as departments within the College of Engineering, the College of Education and Human Development, and the ChristianaCare Health System, as it aims to elevate the overall number of Alzheimer’s researchers at UD.

“All of the programs within the College of Health Sciences address one or more of the modifiable research factors,” Martens said. “The National Institutes of Health has committed significant research dollars to Alzheimer’s funding, and as a University, we haven’t been able to fully take advantage of those opportunities until now.”

The center will also be home to a formal patient registry and data repository that will increase access for older adults to participate in memory-related research and will increase the availability of cognitive testing services in the state. It will also serve as a resource for faculty and graduate students interested in cognitive aging research.

“That’s one of our main reasons for starting the center,” Martens said. “We have a lot of faculty and students at UD doing research that’s relevant to addressing modifiable risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease but have little background in conducting cognitive assessments. If we can provide infrastructure and support that brings new researchers into our field, we’ll have a greater chance of finding what works to slow down this devastating disease.”

Had a center like this existed in the region in Rod’s lifetime, Biggs said it could have made a difference.

“My buddy Rod would smile knowing that this kind of program was advancing and so would his wife and family,” Biggs said. “If we could slow disease progression, that would be great. Had we done it sooner, Rodney might still be here fishing with me.”

People who are interested in participating in Alzheimer’s research can visit the Delaware Center for Cognitive Aging Research website.

Article by Amy Cherry | Photo by Ashley Barnas | August 03, 2022