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Can Tracking Daily Activity Patterns Help Predict Dementia?

It’s hardly a glamorous use for fit bit-type technology. But it could help with critical health and lifestyle decisions

We all make mistakes and our minds wander. With seniors, the question naturally arises, “Am I developing dementia?” If so, identifying and addressing the problem early might stop it or slow it down. Not all dementias are irreversible. For example, some dementias are caused by medication or infection, and thus treatable. Even dementias that are not treatable now might become so later.

One Johns Hopkins research team recently reported “significant differences in movement patterns between participants with normal cognition and those with mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease.” Using activity trackers, the team was following 585 participants in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA), of whom 36 participants had either mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s diagnoses:

Adjusting for differences based on age, sex, and race, the researchers found that overall differences in all-day activity measures were not strongly different between the mild cognitive impairment/Alzheimer’s and normal cognition groups. However, when the researchers focused on activity patterns during certain times of the day, some differences were revealed.

In the mornings (6 a.m. to noon) and even more so in the afternoons (noon to 6 p.m.), the mild cognitive impairment/Alzheimer’s group had significantly lower measures of activity compared to the normal group. The most striking finding was that activity “fragmentation”—a breaking-up of activity into smaller time periods—was 3.4 percent higher for the mild cognitive impairment/Alzheimer’s participants during the afternoon period.

Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, “Tracking daily movement patterns may one day help predict dementia” at Eurekalert (July 19, 2022) The paper is open access.
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This pattern of increased, restless activity later in the day is called “sundowning,” described as “restlessness, agitation, irritability, or confusion that can begin or worsen as daylight begins to fade”:

The causes of sundowning are not well understood. One possibility is that Alzheimer’s-related brain changes can affect a person’s “biological clock,” leading to confused sleep-wake cycles. This may result in agitation and other sundowning behaviors. – National Institute on Aging

But consider the other possibilities the National Institute on Aging suggests:

● Being overly tired

● Unmet needs such as hunger or thirst

● Depression

● Pain

● Boredom

Identifying the changed pattern of movement early and determining its cause could prevent a person from mistaking one of these problems for the onset of dementia.

The researchers plan to follow study participants over time to see if the patterns of activity are consistent enough to be diagnostic, to enable earliest possible treatment.

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Can Tracking Daily Activity Patterns Help Predict Dementia?