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Test Question Results May Predict the Risk of Alzheimer's in High School Students (Part 1)

A recent Chicago Tribune article reported on the largest survey, ever, involving American teenagers—440,000 to be exact.  The survey was administered back in 1960 and it took 2 and a half days to complete.  The students who were given the survey attended 1,353 public schools across the country. The test results would later turn out to be an invaluable tool for predicting the likeliness of Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

One student who took the test was Joan Levin, age 15.  She attended Parkville Senior High School in Maryland.  Levin told the Chicago Tribune, “We knew at the time that they were going to follow up for a long time, but she thought that meant about 20 years.

Today, 58 years after the tests were administered to high school students, the results are being used by researchers in various studies.  Most recently, they’ve been used to study Alzheimer’s disease.  One such study, released in September 2018, discovered that the students who “did well on test questions as teenagers had a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s and related dementias in their 60s and 70s than those who scored poorly,” said the Tribune.

So, what type of questions were the students given, and why?  The test, known as “Project Talent,” was implemented by the United States government, as a reaction to the fear that the Soviet Union may be excelling faster than the U.S. in the space race.

The test involved academic questions, inquiries about the teenagers’ lives at home, health questions, and queries that measured personality traits and asked about aspirations. Overall, the questions were designed to measure a student’s science and engineering aptitude.

Interestingly, among the test takers were some very well-known names, including Janis Joplin, who at the time was senior at Thomas Jefferson High School in Texas, as well as Jim Morrison, a junior at George Washington High School in Virginia.

A study that was published in the Journal of American Medical Association used the data from Project Talent in research that involved measuring the test results from over 85,000 of the student test takers with Medicare claims from 2012 to 2013.  The researchers discovered a link between the adolescents who scored poorly on the tests and early warning signs of dementia—later in life.
The study examined seventeen different areas of cognitive ability, including: language, math, reasoning, visual and special skills, clerical skills and spatial prowess.

Those with lower scores in these areas of the test, were found to be at higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia in their 60’s and 70’s.  Specifically, those who scored lower on mechanical reasoning and memory for words as teenagers had a higher risk of being diagnosed with dementia later in life. Scoring lower in any other categories on the test also increased the risk of dementia later in life.

The study results found that men who had scored lower were 17% more likely to develop dementia and women were 16% more apt to end up having dementia. 

Learn more about the outcome of students involved in Project Talent, by Clicking Here to read part 2 of this article.

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