Navigating a Phone Menu May Be Annoying, But Could it Help Predict Alzheimer’s? Maybe

Dealing with a phone menu can be one of the more tiresome parts of our day, but could it give some clues into how our cognitive health is faring? A new study finds it may.

Researchers at Mass General Brigham recently shared the fundings of a study that aimed to determine if phone menu navigation could provide signs of looming Alzheimer’s. The study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, indicates it can, which may be an innovative new way to predict the disease, compared with current approaches.

Profile of senior woman talking on phone

Dr. Gad Marshall, senior author and Director of Clinical Trials at the Center for Alzheimer Research and Treatment at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, explains, “This test is a more objective assessment of an aspect of daily functioning as opposed to our typical way of using a questionnaire filled out by somebody who knows the individual well. The implication is we may in fact detect a clinically meaningful change much earlier than we anticipate.”

The team adds this could be helpful for trials testing treatments for very early stages of the disease.

For this study, the researchers used the Harvard Automated Phone Task, which includes three tasks typically found on phone menus: refilling a prescription, calling a health insurance company to choose a new primary care physician, and conducting a bank transaction. To accomplish this, participants navigate an interactive voice response system. It was created by the Center for Alzheimer Research and Treatment at the Brigham and Mass General Hospital.

Senior man holding and looking at phone

In addition to these tasks, participants and a study partner who knows them well completed other assessments related to daily activities, and the participants also underwent cognitive tests and brain scans.

The team found that the participants’ performance on the phone test was linked with levels of Alzheimer’s hallmarks amyloid and tau in the brain. In fact, just under a third of participants who had no cognitive impairment did show signs of elevated amyloid and tau in their brains and struggled with the more difficult tasks of the daily functioning assessment.

Though they stress that further study is needed, the researchers say this could be another tool for earlier diagnosis that relies on more direct tests of a person’s abilities.

Chris Gonzalez, the study’s first author and fourth year Ph.D. student in clinical neuropsychology at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, says, “Although these findings are preliminary, they signal that there is an association between an objective measurement of instrumental activities of daily living (i.e., the Harvard APT task) and the interaction of tau and amyloid in a sample of cognitively normal older adults. Having a task like the Harvard APT could better capture an individual’s overall ability to complete complex everyday tasks rather than the questionnaires that are given to patients and their informants to better understand the preclinical stages of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Senior man on phone looking out window

The researchers say it may also be helpful because it doesn’t have to be done in a clinical setting and assesses function in a more sensitive way.

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