U of M study will reach back decades, looking for potential Alzheimer’s risk

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A social worker shows a portrait of Prince Charles, Prince of Wales to an elderly woman during a memory activity in Barcelona, Spain. The University of Minnesota is launching a major new study on Alzheimer's disease, using tens of thousands of participants in a decades-long educational study.
David Ramos | Getty Images 2012

The University of Minnesota is launching a major new study on Alzheimer’s disease, using tens of thousands of participants in a decades-long educational study.

The U's Minnesota Population Center is going back to look at people who began the federal High School and Beyond study in 1980. Sociology professor John Robert Warren says years of interaction has provided extensive information about them.

“This is a group of about 27,000 people across the country, a national sample, who were first interviewed when they were high school sophomores or seniors in 1980, and they were interviewed extensively in school,” Warren said in an interview with MPR News. “Their parents were interviewed, their teachers, their principals. They did all kinds of achievement tests.”

Researchers conducted the most recent follow-ups in 2014.

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The new U study will involve neurologists, sociologists, education scientists, neuropathologists, and survey methodologists. Researchers will collect blood samples and talk to the High School and Beyond participants around the country — many of whom have already been located again. The National Institute on Aging is proving more than $14 million for the research.

Warren says the study participants are still relatively young, in their mid-50s, and few may have any symptoms of dementia. He says researchers nonetheless will be looking for how educational and other experiences interact with potential genetic predispositions for dementia.

“The real interesting science right now is, what about your lifetime of experiences and adversities and opportunities, makes that risk actually come to fruition and become Alzheimer's?” Warren said. “And what provides resilience? What sorts of social conditions or educational opportunities or other things can actually make people not experience dementia, even though they may have a genetic predisposition?”

Other researchers will join the effort from the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Columbia University and the U of M’s School of Public Health. 

Researchers will also keep the blood samples for future research, as the original study participants age, possibly allowing future researchers to look retroactively for biological indicators of dementia and other diseases.