By Chris Adams

One of the biggest and most widely watched surveys of aging in America is enhancing its focus to dementia and collaborating with researchers worldwide to answer pressing questions about the disease.

The Health and Retirement Study is an ongoing, longitudinal study that has long asked questions on financial and retirement issues. Funded by the National Institute on Aging (a component of the National Institutes of Health) and the U.S. Social Security Administration, the study is a goldmine of data  on respondents’ health status, use of health services, work history, wealth and income, family structure and expectations about the future.

More than a decade ago, the study collected information on dementia among some of its respondents. Now, that effort is being expanded by boosting the number of respondents providing details on dementia and collaborating with similar studies in about a dozen countries worldwide.

In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, study associate director Dr. Kenneth Langa led fellows through an explanation of what is collected and how researchers and journalists use it. Langa (bio) is also a professor at the University of Michigan.

“We can do things to decrease our dementia risk in our lives,” Langa said, citing one study that found that up to 30 percent of Alzheimer’s disease cases are attributable to modifiable risks, including low levels of education, cardiovascular risk factors and depression.

The Health and Retirement Study has been collecting data since 1992 and collects information from 20,000 Americans 50 and older.

For the enhanced study on brain health and dementia, researchers conducted modified phone interviews to determine respondents’ cognitive state. They tested their mental quickness – counting backwards, naming the president and vice president, recall of certain terms – as well as asking them to judge their own memory function.

Researchers also collected information on other health conditions, as well as on education, family history, education and other social and lifestyle factors.

With new data, researchers hope to be able to answer some of the key questions on dementia. Among them: Will rising rates of diabetes and obesity reverse the positive trend in dementia prevalence? Why is brain health becoming increasingly unequal across race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status in the U.S.? And, finally, what can be done in early and later life to mitigate the risk of dementia?