May 19, 2020
83 Degrees
Pamela Varkony.

Baby Boomers grew up in the 1950s-70s being told that if their grandma was a little forgetful, she was probably getting “senile.” As those Boomers have become grandparents themselves in recent years, science is revealing a more complex explanation for why seniors can’t always remember someone’s name or where they left the car keys.

Dementia, a broad spectrum of brain disorders (the most prominent of which is Alzheimer’s Disease), has become, according to the 2019 National Vital Statistics Report, the fifth most prominent cause of death in people over 65, and the third most prominent cause for those over age 85.

Such statistics and the possibility of losing one’s cognitive abilities is the bogeyman that hides under the bed of many as they age, which is likely why, on a cool early spring afternoon back in February (before safer-at-home orders prompted by COVID-19), there was a standing-room-only crowd in a Tampa hotel meeting room eager to learn more.

The crowd invited by Tampa Bay Trust Company had come to hear USF Health Morsani College of Medicine’s Dr. Jerri Edwards, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences, on staff at the Byrd Alzheimer’s Center and Research Institute.

Dr. Jerri EdwardsAccording to the USF Health website, Dr. Edwards is nationally recognized for her research examining the effectiveness of computerized cognitive training in preventing or delaying Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, as well as normal age-related cognitive decline.

In 2019, Dr. Edwards was ranked #8 among the National Institutes of Health-funded principal investigators in Psychiatry. Much of that funding has gone into a randomized controlled clinical trial known as Preventing Alzheimer’s with Cognitive Training, or the PACT study.

It was the PACT study that Dr. Edwards had come to speak about and to recruit for. She held the audience’s rapt attention as she presented slide after slide showing such encouraging information as 40% of those who completed computerized brain training had prolonged driving mobility and were 40% less likely to quit driving in the following three years.

Dr. Edwards also spoke extensively about her previously published research that has been incorporated into a commercial application called Brain HQ. Developed by Posit Science of San Francisco, the cognitive training software is available online to the public, both in a free limited edition and as a subscription service.

“In 2006, after our research showed so many benefits from our brain-training studies, Posit Science purchased the rights to those programs,’’ Dr. Edwards explained. “I do not have any financial interest in the program or the company. I do continue to collaborate with Posit Science scientists. Our studies investigate the effects of specific brain training exercises that are marketed by Posit Science in the BrainHQ program.

An early interest in research

When Dr. Edwards was growing up in Indiana, the child of Depression-era parents, the statistics that mattered were the grades you got in school: Education was the key to success. Edwards’ older sister went on to become an M.D. practicing family medicine.

As an undergrad, the younger sister majored in psychology at Anderson University in Indiana but realized she wasn’t a good clinician.

“I wanted to know how the mind works,” she says. After obtaining her Masters in Experimental Psychology at Western Kentucky University, she followed a mentor to the University of Alabama-Birmingham, where she obtained her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology and became focused on how the brain ages. Her post-doctoral work proved to her that the brain’s aging process could be slowed or perhaps prevented. In 2006 she found her professional home at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

It was just about this time that statisticians at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) were realizing that the country would soon face a silver tsunami of healthcare needs: The largest generation in the country’s history was about to turn 60.

“I saw the NIH induce people to do research on HIV/AIDS and when they did, it was brought under control. The NIH has started to bring its weight to bear on finding the cause of dementia,” Dr. Edwards says. “Around the year 2000, there was a boom in the development of brain training programs. They weren’t all the same and they weren’t all effective. That’s why we are continuing to do the research we are now to figure out what really works.”

Current studies need volunteers

One of her most promising current studies focuses on music training.

“Musicians age better than non-musicians, so we’re looking for study participants that are non-musical, that can’t read music, or play an instrument,” Dr. Edwards says. “We believe musical training will improve their cognitive ability.”

One of the 2019 participants in the music training study, Dr. Kaaron Benson, a Moffitt Cancer Center pathologist who lives in South Tampa, called it a “very positive experience.”

“I’ve learned to read and play music,” Dr. Benson says. “I listen to music completely differently now and I’m more analytical. The training influenced my cognitive abilities with no side effects.”

Dr. Edwards is hoping to recruit 500 volunteers in 2020, especially African Americans and Latinos who are up to two times more likely to develop dementia and who are often under-represented in clinical trials.

“We need to make sure our interventions work for those populations and to do that we need them in the study,” says Dr. Edwards.

If you live in the greater Tampa Bay Area and are interested in participating in any of the PACT studies, call ahead to be prescreened by telephone. If you qualify, the tests are being conducted at these locations:

  • The Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) building on the University of South Florida Tampa campus, 813-974-6703;
  • Bayboro Station adjacent to the USF St. Petersburg campus, 727-873-4090; and
  • Reliance Medical Centers, Lakeland, 863-800-0835.
  • A Pasco County location is being scouted now. To be placed on the Pasco County waiting list, call 813 974-6703.

The research that has been done to date has yielded valuable information.

For example, it is now known that education is a protective factor against dementia while heart disease and hypertension increase the risk.

By informing the public of what preventive measures they can take, Dr. Edwards believes science is on its way to drastically reducing the risk of developing dementia. She says, “Hopefully, we can prevent it. But at the least, instead of having a slow decline for 10 or 20 years, we can reduce that time, say, to two years.

When it comes to preventing the slow decline from starting, timing is important. Research has shown that cognitive decline starts to accelerate at age 75 and increases each year after that. Dr. Edwards believes that for optimal results we should start brain training at age 55. Those who engage in early brain training are up to 48% less likely to develop dementia 10 years later.

Lifestyle choices are also important. Cardio-vascular exercise, a Mediterranean style diet, and controlling high blood pressure are all contributing factors to staving off dementia. Falling victim to mini-strokes and other ischemic events drastically increases the chance of developing dementia. Keeping your vision and hearing in good shape is also important as they send vital input to your brain.

For those on Medicare, the law requires the annual “wellness visit” to your family physician now include an assessment of cognitive function designed to detect early signs of dementia. If this assessment has not been offered to you, be sure to ask for it.

Dr. Edwards emphasizes that if you do well on the test, it is a good time to start preventative brain training. If you do not well on the basic screening, it’s important to consult with your physician regarding treatment options.

Dr. Edwards believes that keeping your brain active is the key to preventing or slowing cognitive decline. The keys to staying sharp are music, good health, and brain training. She hopes the public will take advantage of the free USF PACT program available to them throughout the area.

Her dream is to one day have a center at USF that will connect the entire community with research projects that will impact the future well-being of the country.