UT researchers receive grant to use fitness wearables to study dementia risk factors

Sowmya Sridhar, General News Reporter

UT researchers received a $1 million grant from the Bob and Aubyn Howe Foundation to use fitness wearables to study ways to prevent delirium, a risk factor for dementia development.

The study hopes to detect delirium, a sudden change in mental abilities, before physical signs appear, said researcher Joshua Chang. 

“We are very reactive (when treating delirium),” said Chang, an assistant professor of neurology. “Are there ways we can predict when (a patient will develop delirium) and then be able to do something about it?”

Principal investigator David Paydarfar said fitness wearables can measure physiological signals like temperature, movement, heart rate and oxygen levels. This data will help the researchers gauge the likelihood of a patient developing delirium and be more proactive in treatment.

“Although delirium is a cognitive disorder, there are physiological characteristics associated with it,” Chang said. “Your autonomic nervous system or heart rate will be affected when delirious.” 

The team will monitor physiological symptoms of adults over 65 coming into Dell Seton Medical Center, neurology professor Paydarfar said. After collecting preliminary data, the team will give wearable devices like an Oura Ring or smart watch to consenting patients. 

“We’re interested in deviations from sleep schedules and heart rate regulation as very early changes before the person gets overt delirium,” Paydarfar said. 

Previously, researchers thought delirium was treatable and reversible, but in the last decade, researchers learned that delirium can lead to high mortality rates, Paydarfar said. About 30% of hospitalized older adults develop delirium, he said.

“It’s a difficult study to perform because we have to do the study in the setting of a hospital environment where patients heal, … and then you have to gather data in the setting of these patients who are quite ill,” Paydarfar said. “We have to build the study around that reality of patient care.”

The team’s goal is to use affordable technology so people from all backgrounds can benefit, Paydarfar said. The team has not yet finalized the technology they are using. 

“This work is going to have an impact,” Paydarfar said. “We want patients from different socioeconomic backgrounds to have access to these devices.”