In 1960, about half a million teens took a test. Now it could predict whether they get Alzheimer’s.

Posted on
In 1960, Joan Levin, 15, took a test that turned out to be the largest survey of American teenagers ever conducted. It took two and a half days to administer, and included 440,000 students from 1,353 public, private and parochial high schools around the country – including Parkville Senior High School in Parkville, Maryland, where she was a student.

“We knew at the time that they were going to follow up for a long time,” Levin said – but she thought that meant about 20 years.

Fifty-eight years later, the answers she and her peers gave are still being used by researchers – most recently in the fight against Alzheimer’s Disease. A study released this month found that subjects who did well on test questions as teenagers had a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s and related dementias in their 60s and 70s than those who scored poorly.

Known as Project Talent, the test was funded by the U.S. government, which had been concerned, given the Soviet Union’s recent successful Sputnik launch, that Americans were falling behind in the space race.

Students answered questions about academics and general knowledge as well as their home life, health, aspirations, and personality traits, and the test was intended to identify students with aptitude for science and engineering. Test-takers included Janis Joplin, then a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School in Port Arthur, Texas, and Jim Morrison, then a junior at George Washington High School in Alexandria, Virginia.

In recent years, researchers have used Project Talent data for follow-up studies, including one published Sept. 7 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Conducted by researchers at the Washington-based American Institutes for Research, the organization that originally administered the test, it compared results for over 85,000 test-takers with their 2012-2013 Medicare claims and expenditures data and found warning signs for dementia may be discernable as early as adolescence.

The study looked at how students scored on 17 areas of cognitive ability such as language, abstract reasoning, math, clerical skills, and visual and spatial prowess, and found that people with lower scores as teenagers were more prone to getting Alzheimer’s and related dementias in their 60s and early 70s.

Specifically, those with lower mechanical reasoning and memory for words as teens had a higher likelihood of developing dementia in later life: Men in the lower-scoring half were 17 percent more likely, while women with lower scores were 16 percent more likely. Worse performance on other components of the test also showed increased likelihood of later-life dementia.

An estimated 5.7 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, and in the absence of scientific breakthroughs to curb the disease, the Alzheimer’s Association projects that number could reach 14 million by 2050, with the cost of care topping $1 trillion per year. 

The 1960 test could have the potential to be like the groundbreaking Framingham study, a decades-long study of men in Massachusetts that led to reductions in heart disease in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, said Susan Lapham, director of Project Talent and a co-author of the JAMA study.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *