UT researchers’ policy paper identifies potential solutions for cognitive impairment crisis

Sowmya Sridhar, General News Reporter

Researchers from UT, UT Southwestern Medical Center and six other institutions published a policy paper for the Policy and Planning Committee of the National Academy of Neuropsychology regarding strategies for early recognition of cognitive impairment in older adults on Sept. 10.

The paper was published in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences and details how the aging U.S. population will lead to an increase in cognitive impairment risk. 

Lead author Robin Hilsabeck said cognitive impairment is important to study because the global population is living longer.

“By 2060, there’s going to be more people over 65 than children,” Hilsabeck said. “Age is the biggest risk factor for cognitive decline and dementia, so the sooner we can identify it and therefore treat it, the better.”

Hilsabeck, director of the Comprehensive Memory Center at the Mulva Clinic for the Neurosciences, said the team wrote the paper because people with cognitive impairment are often not identified early.

Memory impairment that starts to cause functional problems is not a part of normal aging.

— Laura Lacritz

“The policy paper was to give some insight to policymakers about how (we can) identify these changes early because there’s a huge need to do that,” neurology associate professor Hilsabeck said.

Hilsabeck said due to the healthcare professional shortage, the workforce will not have the manpower to support the wave of people who will need care. The paper also focused on strategies to assist primary care providers with early detection.

“(Healthcare professionals) have a lot to take care of in the short time they have with patients,” Hilsabeck said. “Technology is a way to help healthcare providers as that will make things more automated and easier.”

Laura Lacritz, one of the paper’s authors, said a policy paper begins with an overview of the current situation relating to an issue and then “provides recommendations to inform practice, (which) may have implications for law or national standards.”

Lacritz, a professor of psychiatry and neurology at UT Southwestern Medical Center, said cognitive screening needs integration into primary care.

 “(Physicians) take individuals’ blood pressure, check their diabetes and cholesterol. Cognition is another important area that needs to be detected early on so we can identify (individuals who) need further evaluation for diagnosis,” Lacritz said. 

Hilsabeck said researchers and policymakers must collaborate to ensure research is translated into practical applications for the public.

“(The research) is often published in scientific journals and that’s probably not what the policymakers are reading,” Hilsabeck said. “Researchers and policymakers need to sit down together and make sure that the research is being conveyed to the policymakers.”

Lacritz said a few decades ago, memory impairment was believed to be an inevitable part of aging, but that narrative is changing. 

“Memory impairment that starts to cause functional problems is not a part of normal aging,” Lacritz said. “We’re removing the stigma by having this be a normal part of something that individuals talk to their doctors (about) and not something that has to be hidden.”