$1.4m grants offer hope for 400,000 people living with dementia

Cognitive neuroscientists Dr Hannah Keage and Dr Tobias Loetscher will use their NHMRC Fellowship funds to investigate the link between visual impairments and dementia, as well as vascular contributions to dementia.

Over the next four years the researchers – who are based in UniSA’s Cognitive Ageing and Impairment Neurosciences (CAIN) Lab at the Magill campus – will undertake a number of studies to tackle several issues related to dementia.

Dr Keage’s $718,000 project will look at the cognitive impacts of heart surgeries in older adults, with approximately 10,000 people over the age of 65 undergoing heart surgeries in Australia each year. These individuals are typically vulnerable to developing dementia due to long histories of cardiovascular disease.

“Older adults with cardiovascular disease and associated conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, obesity and hypertension are at risk of dementia,” Dr Keage says. “They are also at risk for needing heart surgery, which is an additive risk factor for cognitive decline, and we can look at intervention strategies to help arrest that after surgery.

“We are going to undertake experiments in Adelaide hospitals to increase older patients’ cognitive function after cardiovascular surgery and also try to develop tools where we can identify people at a higher risk of delirium, which often accelerates dementia onset,” Dr Keage says.

There are preventative strategies for delirium but they are expensive and if the researchers can identify those at higher risk, these strategies can be targeted to treat the more vulnerable patients. 

Dr Loetscher will use his $712,000 NHMRC grant to understand the visual problems that people with dementia experience, so that changes can be made to their environment.

“More than half of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease are affected by visual impairments, particularly perceiving contrasts, depth and also motion,” Dr Loetscher says.

“These visual problems may appear before signs of memory loss, so part of my research will involve recruiting older people and assessing their eye movements and cognitive function over a period of a few years to see if certain visual abnormalities predict the development and progression of cognitive impairments,” Dr Loetscher says.

The CAIN researcher will also work with Helping Hand, one of South Australia’s largest aged care providers, to investigate what changes can be made to environments to make life easier for people living with dementia.

“Simple things like ensuring there are clear contrasts between the colours of walls and doors so they can find their way around, and also making sure that dinner plates are contrasted with table cloths.

People with dementia often don’t drink or eat enough. It may not always be because they forget or aren’t hungry, but simply because they can’t see their food clearly if there are not distinct contrasts on a dining table.”

Dr Loetscher’s findings will not only help inform the design of aged care homes, but also to adapt the individual homes of people living with dementia.

The two researchers are keen to recruit Masters and PhD students in the School of Psychology, Social Work and Social Policy to help work on the projects. Please email hannah.keage@unisa.edu.au or tobias.koetscher@unisa.edu.au for more information.

Notes for editors

There are more than 413,106 Australians living with dementia (55 per cent female), with this number expected to increase by more than 120,000 in the next eight years*. Worldwide, the estimated number of people living with dementia is around 46.8 million.

Dementia is the second leading cause of death in Australia after heart disease, contributing to 10.6 per cent of deaths in women and 5.4 per cent of deaths among men.

Current projections suggest that by 2025, some 255,800 dementia carers will be needed in the country and this number is expected to double by 2056.

*Figures sourced from Alzheimer’s Australia

Media contact: Candy Gibson mobile 0434 605 142 email candy.gibson@unisa.edu.au

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