April 1, 2021

UCalgary researcher studies link between ADHD and accelerated cognitive aging

Brandy Callahan hopes results will inform dementia prevention programs in the future
Brandy Callahan
Brandy Callahan

Throughout her clinical practice, Dr. Brandy Callahan, PhD, has encountered many individuals worried about cognitive changes, specifically dementia

Working with these patients led her to the conclusion that many of them also suffered from psychiatric illnesses that had similar symptoms to dementia. This, in turn, led Callahan, a clinical neuropsychologist and assistant professor in the University of Calgary’s Department of Psychology, to question what the best way is to measure cognition and what is the best way to tease apart a psychiatric issue from a cognitive one.

“I became confronted [with] the fact that, textbook-wise, what we are often asked to evaluate doesn’t map on well with the clients we see in real life,” says Callahan, who is also a member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute. “I was being asked to evaluate clients complaining of cognitive impairment, but, when doing a history with them, I realized that they had many, many years of other things going on.”

Understand risk factors for later dementia

The questions raised from evaluating clients underlie Callahan’s research which is focused on whether certain conditions, specifically attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), might pose risk factors for later dementia. According to Callahan, there are many things that need to be taken into consideration when evaluating the impact of ADHD on cognition, such as its severity, how long it’s been present and an individual’s coping mechanisms.

The impacts of ADHD have been well researched, and it is recognized that individuals with ADHD can experience cognitive symptoms such as forgetfulness, as Callahan has found in her research, but the impacts of ADHD on cognition later in life is still unclear.

Callahan’s research on ADHD and dementia lies at the intersection of psychiatry, neurodegeneration and normal aging, with Callahan’s specialty being geriatric neuropsychology.

How our thinking skills change as we age

Through her research, Callahan says she hopes to determine whether the suspected relationship between ADHD and dementia is evident. This research will improve understanding of the relationship between mental health and cognitive aging, which broadly refers to changes in thinking skills that occur normally as we age.

“Other research groups have, in the past decade, published research suggesting that there might be a link between ADHD and accelerated cognitive aging, and so a lot of the questions that I am seeking to answer are: is this relationship real and, if it is real, what’s the mechanism driving it?” Callahan says.

Shift toward prevention

As mentioned at the 2019 Canadian Conference on Dementia, researchers have shifted their resources toward finding ways to prevent dementia on the front end, rather than cure it on the back end. Callahan say she hopes that, regardless of her final research findings, her results can be used to inform dementia prevention programs in the future.

“I think there are lots of factors that play into how a person ages, even if they have an existing issue,” she says.

Learn more about Callahan’s study.

Brandy Callahan is a Tier II Canada Research Chair in Adult Clinical Neuropsychology.