Nearly six decades ago, about 440,000 students in the United States took a test that would become the largest survey of American teenagers to be ever conducted.
Now, a new study found that those who did well on the test questions when they were teenagers tend to have lower incidence of Alzheimer’s and related dementia by the time they reach their 60’s and 70’s compared with their peers who scored poorly on the test.
The Project Talent test was conducted in 1960 out of the US government’s concerns that Americans were falling behind in the space race. Three years prior to the test, the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik 1 in low-Earth orbit.
The aim of the test is to identify the students with aptitude for science and engineering. Besides answering questions about academics and general knowledge, the students also provided information about their health, home life, personality traits, and aspirations.
In recent years, researchers used data from the test for follow up studies, including one conducted by Susan Lapham and colleagues from the American Institutes for Research, the organization that originally administered the two-and-a-half day test.
The researchers looked at the the results of more than 85,000 test takers and then compared these with their Medicare claims and expenditures data. Analysis revealed that warning signs for dementia are already discernible in adolescence.
Lapham and colleagues found that those with lower memory for words and lower mechanical reasoning when they were teens were at higher risk of developing dementia in later life.
They found that men whose scores were on the lower half were 17 percent more likely to develop dementia. Women in the lower-scoring half, similarly, had 16 percent higher risk of dementia.
The researchers also found an association between worse performance on other components of the test and greater risk of later-life dementia.
Lapham told the Washington Post that the findings support the idea that there should be intervention for high school kids and even younger ones to keep their brain active from a young age.
“In sum, lower performance on certain specific measures of cognitive ability in adolescence are associated with increased likelihood of ADRD 53 years later,” Lapham and colleagues wrote in their study, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Sept. 7.
“Our results support the early-life origins of ADRD risk and bring forth the potential for specific measures of cognitive ability to assist in very early identification of subgroups at risk for ADRD.”