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Penn Medicine on Sept. 24, 2021.

Credit: Matthew Schwartz

A Penn Medicine study found that both older adults and their loved ones had similar responses to news of the risk of an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. 

The study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society and conducted by researchers from the Penn Memory Center, studied the implications of older adults and their loved ones receiving news of their potential risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers tested cognitively unimpaired adults for the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and found that many of the patients’ loved ones were negatively impacted when they learned about a loved one’s risk diagnosis, the Penn Memory Center reported.

“In the end, we saw that family members’ reactions were very similar to how individuals themselves react,” lead researcher and Perelman School of Medicine professor Emily Largent told the Penn Memory Center.

The study used 70 participants from a previous study conducted by the Penn Memory Center, which paired together patients who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease with a close relative that was cognitively unimpaired and between the ages of 65 and 80. In this study, the cognitively unimpaired relatives learned about their own risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. 

The researchers conducted tests to determine each patient’s beta-amyloid levels, which act as a biomarker of Alzheimer’s disease. The participants were presented with either “elevated” or “not elevated” levels of beta-amyloid, which signified that they were either at an increased risk or not at an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Afterward, Largent interviewed the research participants’ study partners to qualitatively assess their reactions to learning about their loved ones’ increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease. 

Interviewees who learned that their loved ones received a “not elevated” beta-amyloid test result typically felt happiness and relief, Penn Memory Center reported. On the other hand, if the interviewee received news that their loved one was at increased risk for Alzheimer’s due to an “elevated” beta-amyloid test result, they experienced negative emotions and concern for their own risk of cognitive decline. The “elevated” risk news affected both the research participant and their loved ones in similar ways. 

Largent has completed several other studies regarding risks and responses to Alzheimer’s disease. In her recent blog post, Largent emphasized the importance of her findings for individuals and their loved ones at risk for Alzheimer’s. 

“Although individuals recognize that dementia-risk information is not medically actionable, many still describe feeling empowered by learning this information,” Largent wrote in an Oct. 26 blog post. “Individuals who learn they are at increased risk for dementia are more likely than others to make changes in diet and exercise—and also to revise their future plans to account for the possibility of cognitive decline.” 

Largent told the Penn Memory Center that in the future, she hopes to continue looking at ways to help families identify new tools and plans for anticipating the trajectory of cognitive decline.