New calculator helps determine risk of dementia

The Dementia Calculator can help people over 55 reduce their risk of developing the deadly brain disease.

Dave Yasvinski 3 minute read June 29, 2021

Researchers have found a way to measure risk of dementia. GETTY

Determining your risk of developing dementia is just few clicks away thanks to a Canadian-made calculator that can be used from the comfort of your couch.

The Dementia Calculator, which is documented in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, helps people 55 years of age and older better understand their brains and what they can do to reduce the risk of a deadly diagnosis over the next five years. The tool, which was created in collaboration by researchers at the Ottawa Hospital, the University of Ottawa, the Bruyère Research Institute and ICES, was built on survey from data from more than 75,000 Canadians.

“What sets this dementia risk calculator apart is that you don’t need to visit a doctor for any tests,” said Stacey Fisher, the lead author of the study who performed the research largely in Ottawa as a PhD student in Ottawa under the guidance of Doug Manuel and Peter Tanuseputro. “People already have all the information they need to complete the calculator in the comfort of their home.”

Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range a cognitive issues — such as memory loss and difficulty thinking or problem solving — that are significant enough to interfere with daily life. Over 400,000 Canadian seniors are currently living with a diagnosis, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, with another 76,000 or so cases uncovered annually — a number only expected to increase as the country’s population continues to age. It is projected that the total annual health care costs for Canadians with dementia will rise to $16.6-billion in 2031 — twice the total cost from 2011.

There is no cure or treatment for dementia but healthy lifestyle choices — such as increasing physical activity, eating well and reducing tobacco and alcohol intake — may prevent as many as one-third of new cases, according to the study.

The calculator, which helps people assess their individual risk, is powered by the Dementia Population Risk Tool (DemPoRT) — an algorithm researchers hope will be used by policymakers to assess the risk to the general population. The algorithm accounts for a range of variables, including age, smoking status and lifetime exposure, alcohol consumption, stress, diet, ethnicity, education and marital status among other factors.

It is the first predictive tool designed to be used at a population level and, once implemented, researchers said it will be able to predict the number of new cases in a community, identify higher-risk populations and support Canada’s national dementia strategy. Regularly collected health data is all that is needed to power the algorithm.

The new tool has been added to a range of other calculators — including those that predict life expectancy and risk of heart attack or stroke — at Project Big Life, a website dedicated to showing how public health policy affects families and communities.

“This tool will give people who fill it out clues to what they can do to reduce their personal risk of dementia,” said Tanuseputro, the senior author of the study and a scientist at The Ottawa Hospital. “The COVID-19 pandemic has also made it clear that sociodemographic variables like ethnicity and neighbourhood play a major role in our health. It was important to include those variables in the tool so policy makers can understand how different populations are impacted by dementia, and help ensure that any prevention strategies are equitable.”

Dave Yasvinski is a writer


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