New Year’s is often a reset for people. It’s a chance to make resolutions or set intentions and goals for the days, weeks and months ahead. For many Americans, those goals typically include focusing on physical health and well-being.
Whether you fall into this category or not, Arizona State University's Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation Professor Fang Yu says there’s one health-related item we should all be prioritizing: our brain health.
“I think memory and cognition are a unique gift as human beings — that’s who we are; that’s how we identify ourselves,” said Yu.
And she says the beginning of the year serves as a great marker to measure your memory to see if there has been any change or decline over the previous 365 days.
Below she offers a couple of simple but effective things anyone can do to see if there’s a need to be concerned and seek out professional help.
First, Yu, who is also the Edson Chair in Dementia Translational Nursing Science, says you can try a recall test.
“Think about something you did last week, ideally with another person who can corroborate what you did. Then recall what happened, where you were, who you were with, what topics you discussed, and then compare your memory with theirs,” she said.
Another common cognitive test is to write down a list of a few items and then try to recite them over extended periods of time, starting with five minutes and then giving it another 20–30 minutes to see how many you get right.
Yu says if you’re not easily getting most of them right, there may be something worth exploring. However, she cautions against self-diagnosing or overreacting.
“Everyone is getting older as every new year comes, and our cognition goes through natural decline. We all have memory slips; the key difference is whether or not you’re able to remember what happens later, even if you can’t recall it now. Sometimes at the moment I needed it, I couldn’t access that memory, but an hour later I remembered everything,” said Yu.
While these quick tests are a good idea for all adults, it’s especially important for those 65 and older because age is the single biggest risk factor for cognitive decline due to Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.
As our global population ages, it’s expected that the number of people living with Alzheimer’s will continue to increase. Just look at the most recent statistics from the Alzheimer’s Association. According to its data, in 2021, an estimated 6.2 million Americans age 65 and older were living with Alzheimer's disease.
That number may more than double by 2050 to a projected 12.7 million without medical breakthroughs to prevent, slow or cure the disease.
Yu has dedicated her research career to finding a breakthrough.
“People who have Alzheimer’s dementia hate this condition. Many people around the world report it as the worst disease you can have because it robs people of their identity; it robs who you are. So anything we can do to prevent that from happening is the goal,” she said.
For the last 15 years, she has focused her studies around exercise, investigating whether it can be used as a successful intervention to delay cognitive decline and/or prevent Alzheimer’s dementia.
Early in 2021, she published promising findings from a recent study.
“Our primary finding indicates that six-month exercise significantly reduced cognitive decline in comparison to the natural course of changes for Alzheimer’s dementia,” Yu said at the time.
Now she’s actively recruiting for a new study that builds off the previous one.
The ACT Trial will explore how exercise and brain training affects memory and brain function in people who have mild cognitive impairment, or MCI. Yu says MCI puts people at a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s down the road.
In order to apply any findings widely, Yu and her team are dedicated to finding a diverse group of people all over the age of 65 in the greater Phoenix area to join the study.
“We hope we can recruit participants representative of Arizona’s demographics so we can say, 'OK, this is likely applied to all Arizonans.' But if we have a very limited sample that only certain groups are included in, then we will never know if it applies to the different groups. So we want people from all backgrounds to participate,” said Yu.
To learn more about the ACT Trial and see whether you’re eligible to join, visit the study's website: www.theacttrial.com.