Identifying Cognitive Decline Earlier

A new tool designed by clinicians across the Comprehensive Memory Center could improve cognitive screening capabilities in the primary care setting

Reviewed by: Robin Hilsabeck, PhD, ABPP
Written by: Lauren Schneider

An older couple embraces on a wooden porch outdoors with trees in the background.

Pulse, blood pressure, body temperature – and cognition? In the near future, primary care providers may screen for cognitive decline in older adults as easily as they test vital signs, thanks to a new application in development at the Comprehensive Memory Center within the Mulva Clinic for the Neurosciences at UT Health Austin.

According to principal investigator Robin Hilsabeck, PhD, ABPP, a neuropsychologist who serves as Director of the Comprehensive Memory Center, the risk assessment and cognitive screening (RACS) app test can be administered to patients over sixty during routine check-ups alongside standard measurements such as blood pressure and weight. Physicians will automatically be alerted of a patient’s results and informed whether referral to specialized care is recommended.

Dr. Hilsabeck says that this tool will address a crucial gap in identifying patients with early stages of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) or mild cognitive impairment (MCI) in the primary care context. “It’s estimated that up to two-thirds of people with cognitive impairment are being missed in primary care settings. The earlier we can identify these patients, the sooner we can apply preventative measures to slow cognitive decline.”

Promising Preliminary Research

The RACS app was first evaluated on a sample of over 100 adults aged sixty and older with varying cognitive abilities ranging from cognitively normal to mild dementia. The accuracy of the app in detecting patients with cognitive impairment was compared to that of a more traditional screening tool.

“Our preliminary results show that that is a very sensitive tool and we’re picking up on who has cognitive impairment very well,” says Dr. Hilsabeck. “Our next step is to determine which aspects of the test are the most sensitive so that we can get rid of any extra and have the shortest, most sensitive indicator that we possibly can. In the primary care setting, time is limited, so our app needs to be quick, easy, and automated.”

The research team completed research patient recruitment for this validation phase in October and will further refine the RACS application before testing the final product in two primary care clinics. Dr. Hilsabeck predicts that the tool could be ready for widespread implementation as soon as two years from now.

The Future of Memory Care

In September, Dr. Hilsabeck co-authored a publication with experts from other institutions emphasizing that early cognitive screening for older adults is key to addressing the rising rates of neurodegenerative disorders resulting from the country’s aging population so that interventions can be implemented as early as possible.

The Comprehensive Memory Center’s other efforts to serve the growing demographic of older adults with cognitive decline include the diagnosis and treatment of neurodegenerative conditions, support for caregivers, and clinical trials focused on improving the standard of care for dementia patients.

Initiatives that incorporate technology into memory care, including the RACS app, are developed in the TechANS Lab, which Dr. Hilsabeck leads alongside Jared F. Benge, PhD, ABPP, another neuropsychologist in the Comprehensive Memory Center.

For information about other ongoing clinical trials within the Comprehensive Memory Center, view the following recruitment flyers:

To learn more about the Comprehensive Memory Center or make an appointment, call 1-833-UT-CARES (1-833-882-2737) or visit here.

To learn more about the Mulva Clinic for the Neurosciences, visit here.

About UT Health Austin

UT Health Austin is the clinical practice of the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin. We collaborate with our colleagues at the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas at Austin to utilize the latest research, diagnostic, and treatment techniques, allowing us to provide patients with an unparalleled quality of care. Our experienced healthcare professionals deliver personalized, whole-person care of uncompromising quality and treat each patient as an individual with unique circumstances, priorities, and beliefs. Working directly with you, your care team creates an individualized care plan to help you reach the goals that matter most to you — in the care room and beyond. For more information, call us at 1-833-UT-CARES or request an appointment here.