Summary: Cognitive Drug Research Ltd. plans to offer web-based cognitive testing to individuals. A poor result on this test might encourage someone to seek further testing, or try to improve his overall health. But I'm not sure what my own score means in terms of everyday life, or whether the commercially available brain fitness programs would improve my score.
My brain age is 80, at least according to the test posted on Portfolio.com. To find out why I scored thirty years older than my actual age, and what it might mean, I contacted Cognitive Drug Research Ltd. (CDR), the company that developed the test.
"This is the attentional subset of our cognitive test system," said Professor Keith Wesnes, CEO of CDR. "The attention tests measure your ability to focus, process information and sustain attention. While memory loss is the classical symptom of the dementias, our research has shown that poor attention is an important deficit in Alzheimer's disease as well as memory loss, and that in other types of dementia, for example Lewy Body Dementia and Parkinson's dementia, it is one of the central deficits."
According to Professor Wesnes, my score was based on the speed of my performance. During the test, I had to click on a key when certain numbers or words appeared on my screen (for instance right arrow when I saw the word YES). I assume my score was increased when I clicked on the wrong key, too. So how did CDR come up with my "brain age?" "We compared your results to our database of over 6000 healthy individuals (aged 18 to 87) who also performed the tests for the first time," Professor Wesnes said. "We see a linear decline with advancing age, and we took your age from the average speed of your responses."
"This is only a snapshot," he said, "and the more important thing is how your scores hold up over time. There are large inter-individual variations in scores, and what is most valuable is to be able to identify when performance on various measures begins to decline. If this occurs, and on re-testing the decline is still present, this would be a cue to visit the doctor for a checkup."
CDR's computerized assessment system is used to test cognitive performance in clinical trials, and in some memory clinics. Now the company plans to market the test to individuals as a web-based screening tool.
Screening for memory loss is still controversial, partly because the benefits of the available treatments are small for most people (for an in-depth discussion of this, click here). Self-screening, without any guidance from a professional, is bound to be even more controversial. But who can resist taking a test like this?
I can see that poor performance on this kind of test might lead to some positive outcomes. Maybe people will talk with their doctors about further testing. Maybe they'll try exercise or a better diet to see if that improves their performance. But it also seems to me there are social, psychological and even legal implications of widespread use of these cognitive tests. What if I had to score 70 or below to keep my driver's license? To get health insurance? To get a job? What if I became really depressed about my apparent poor brain function?
With Professor Wesnes's encouragement, I took the test again, this time priming myself with two cups of coffee. I scored a 71. This result was unscientifically validated when I tried my friend Bill Bridgwater's Brain Age at an FDA meeting last week. With a lot of help from Bill, I scored a 69.
I know it's important for me to stay physically fit as I get older. I test my physical fitness, and then exercise to try to improve it. But can I apply the same logic to cognitive fitness? I'm not sure, because I don't know if exercising my brain will really increase my cognitive fitness. And even if my Brain Age or CDR test scores improve, will it make any difference in my everyday life? I've added investigating brain fitness programs and the science behind them to my to-do list, and will let you know what I find out.