Barb Dixon has a thing for tests.
Having spent 14 years testing software as director of a company’s software quality assurance, the 71-year-old retiree and resident of an adult lifestyle community in Freelton, Ont., says “test-taking is very close to my heart – it’s something I love to do.”
When the Canadian Association for Retired Persons (CARP) put out a call about a year ago for volunteers to participate in a trial for a new online brain test being developed by Cogniciti Inc. – a company owned by Baycrest Health Sciences and MaRS Discovery District whose mission is to bring “brain health solutions to people” – Dixon didn’t hesitate to sign up.
She was one of 300 adults ages 50 to 79 who Cogniciti recruited to try out various versions of the test over the course of a year.
The online self-assessment tool, which launched May 26, is free and can be accessed by anyone at www.cogniciti.com. It’s designed for people 50 to 79 who want to see whether their memory and attention capacities fall within a normal range for their age, education level and general state of health.
Though the test can’t replace a doctor’s clinical assessment, Angela Troyer, a Baycrest neuropsychologist and director of the centre’s memory and aging program, along with Baycrest senior scientist Brian Levine created it to be a cognitive check-up, a first step for people concerned about changes to their memory or cognition.
Memory and attention can be affected by normal aging processes and by brain disease, explained Cogniciti president Michael Meagher. The test helps people determine if their cognitive functions are “normal” or if they indicate a problem –this could mean a neurological disease or something much more benign.
Troyer explained: “If somebody has a problem on this test, we don’t know if it’s a neurological disease. It could be, but it could also be because of things like depression, anxiety or medication side effects. Or maybe they didn’t understand the instructions or got distracted.”
Test-takers receive an overall score of their cognitive health, and can save their results if they want to track their performance over time. If someone scores poorly, he or she is encouraged to re-take the test after a week and if the score remains low, to follow up with a doctor.
Despite her confidence, Dixon said she found the test, which contains various cognitive activities and includes assessments for immediate and delayed memory, to be quite difficult.
“There was one part I found easy, because it played into the logic of a computer programmer, which I once was, but there was a part where we had to match different faces and names and that was quite challenging.”
She scored within the normal range, which proved comforting, but was no real surprise.
“Prior to the test I hadn’t had any worries. There’s no Alzheimer’s or dementia in my family. My sisters are in their 80s and are still sharp.”
Dixon’s husband, who is 72, refuses to take the test.
“He’s that kind of person. He says, ‘If I have something, I don’t want to know.’ And I think there’s a big segment of the population who feels that way… I found that when I sent the test to friends.”
But according to Troyer, “there’s clearly an appetite for this kind of tool… A lot of people don’t know if what they experience cognitively is normal aging or not.”
Two weeks after its launch, about 30,000 users have taken it.
She said it took about three years to develop the test, which her team adapted from research and existing clinical tests, taking great care to account for individual variability.
“We spent a lot of time making sure the test wasn’t too easy or to hard, to cover that whole span of what’s normal.”
She stressed that a low score does not necessarily signify dementia. Some causes of memory decline are treatable, such as thyroid disease, mental health issues or vitamin deficiency.
“It’s not a diagnostic tool. We say, ‘If you have an unusual score, get it checked [with a doctor].’”
For diseases that don’t have a cure, such as Alzheimer’s, early knowledge can be helpful.
“Identifying neurological problems early gives people time to make plans, to look at different options with a doctor. There are some interventions that can help people live with changes. Things people can be proactive about – these are best implemented early, while changes are still mild.”