Ottawa researchers develop 'dementia calculator'

·2 min read
Every year, 76,000 new dementia cases are diagnosed in Canada. A group of Ottawa researchers have developed an online tool they hope will bring that number down. (Myriam Fimbry/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Every year, 76,000 new dementia cases are diagnosed in Canada. A group of Ottawa researchers have developed an online tool they hope will bring that number down. (Myriam Fimbry/Radio-Canada - image credit)

A group of Ottawa researchers is behind a new online tool that predicts one's risk of being diagnosed with dementia within five years.

Stacey Fisher, the lead researcher of the project, developed the Dementia Calculator as part of her PhD.

"Overall, we found that it actually works really well," she told CBC Radio's All In A Day last week.

Every year, 76,000 new dementia cases are diagnosed in Canada, a number expected to increase as the population ages.

Fisher said there are a number of factors that can influence whether someone is likely to develop dementia, including age, stress level, amount of exercise, pre-existing health conditions, history with smoking, ethnicity and even marital status.

"The biggest one is age and there's nothing we can do about your age," she said. "And so what we really focus on is those lifestyle behaviours."

It takes five to 10 minutes to use the calculator, which is currently open for those 55 or older. After the user describes his or her lifestyle, the calculator provides suggestions for mitigating one's risk, like quitting smoking.

While no cure for dementia exists, approximately one third of cases are thought to be preventable.

Submitted by Stacey Fisher
Submitted by Stacey Fisher

Uses data from 75,000 Ontarians

While the calculator was mostly developed while she lived in Ottawa, Fisher is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto and Public Health Ontario.

It uses an algorithm, which Fisher also helped develop, that pulls from data provided by some 75,000 Ontarians who participated in Statistics Canada's Canadian Community Health Survey from 2002 to 2012.

That data was linked to administrative health data to identify whether each respondent was diagnosed with dementia in the five years following the survey.

Fisher said the researchers would like to keep improving the calculator — for instance, by allowing someone to provide details about their family history, a factor she said is a "big one" when it comes to determining dementia risk.

The Canadian Community Health Survey didn't collect that data, Fisher said, so they weren't able to include it as a risk factor.

The underlying algorithm, she added, can be used by Statistics Canada and other policymakers to predict how many people could develop dementia Canada-wide.

"[That's] important for surveillance, resource allocation, and just informing population level prevention efforts," she said.

"[We want] to better understand how different populations across the country, or different types of people, are affected by dementia."

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