- Kaiser Permanente is reaching back in time with its latest big data analytics research effort aimed at illuminating risk factors associated with brain health and the development of dementia.
Using information from physical exams conducted on patients from the 1960s to the 1990s, researchers at Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research and the University of California Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center will explore how early-life conditions, experiences, and diseases may affect cognitive function and neurological deterioration later in life.
The study will take advantage of some of the earliest automated population health management work conducted by Kaiser Permanente clinicians. After introducing the multiphasic medical exam in the 1950s, the 1960s saw the introduction of computers that analyzed large volumes of data in an effort to target public health concerns.
That data, combined with new exams of 1800 of the same patients, will provide a high quality dataset for tracking the development of neurological conditions and potentially discovering risk factors rooted in race, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic experience, or other lifestyle features.
The five-year study will be funded by $13 million in grant money, which will be used in part to support the delivery of cutting-edge brain scans to participants. The MRI and PET scan data, combined with comprehensive clinical and cognitive evaluations, will jumpstart one of the most ambitious research projects on the subject.
"This study is like time travel, allowing us to look at risk and protective factors for cognitive decline throughout one's life," said Rachel Whitmer, PhD, principal investigator of the new study and research scientist with the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research.
"We'll be able to analyze how factors such as midlife vascular health, psychosocial conditions, and early-life growth indicators have influenced brain health and dementia risk among current members of Kaiser Permanente."
The patient cohort will be equally divided between white, black, Asian, and Latino patients, the researchers said, in order to gain broader insights into the origins and progress of dementia across racial and ethnic lines.
"The bulk of what is known about early-life risk factors for dementia and brain pathology is from studies of highly educated whites," said Dan Mungas, PhD, professor of neurology at UC Davis. "This study will fill a much needed gap in understanding dementia and brain aging in a group that is representative of the aging US population."