|February 2011, Issue 10|
Researcher Working to Identify Alzheimer's and Dementia Early
Dr. Mary Tierney has been a Research Scholar since 1985. She began her career as an Assistant Professor of psychology at the University of Saskatchewan. After teaching for four years, receiving tenure and becoming head of the department, Dr. Tierney found herself returning to the ‘warmth’ of Toronto to teach psychology. During her time at the University of Toronto, Dr. Tierney also completed her postdoctoral clinical training in psychology.
She soon developed an interest in cognitive impairment in aging and dementia after the realization that there was a great need for scientists and clinicians to pursue research with older people.
She received a fellowship to study aging and dementia and initiated the Sunnybrook Dementia Study followed by the Sunnybrook Memory Study. These studies focused on the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and how to predict whether memory-impaired patients were likely to develop the disease. Her research revealed that Alzheimer’s disease begins with difficulty recalling information and progresses to impairments that affect a person’s ability to find their way around familiar places and carrying out simple daily tasks.
Several years later, she examined data from the ten-year Canadian Study of Health and Aging and was able to show that several neuropsychological tests could accurately predict the onset of dementia five to ten years before its diagnosis. Dr. Tierney hopes that the research on the early prediction of dementia will allow clinicians to identify those at risk for dementia up to ten years before its diagnosis. She believes that this may help motivate those at risk of the disease to reduce their risk factors. Based on her findings, Dr. Tierney has developed a website that clinicians can use to calculate a patient’s likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
Dr. Tierney’s research has also focused on the role of estrogen and its effects on cognitive skills in post-menopausal women. Her work in this area came from the knowledge that estrogen is critical for learning and memory and that the loss of estrogen in menopausal women is one of the risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. In a randomized controlled trial, she examined whether a specific formulation of estrogen replacement therapy would be beneficial in delaying the progression of memory impairment in older women. The results of this study indicate that hormone replacement will benefit women who have normal memory function, but not women who already have memory impairment.
In one study, Dr. Tierney discovered that women who engage in more strenuous activity throughout life had lower cognitive abilities, whereas women who engaged in more moderate activity had better cognitive abilities. These findings have important implications for lifestyle recommendations for pre-menopausal women.
Her passion for studying cognitive impairment is particularly directed at Family Medicine. Dr. Tierney feels it is essential for family doctors to be able to identify cognitive impairment in its progression because it affects the patient’s ability to manage their health care, their medication, their finances and avoid harm or injury.
Because cognitive impairment is not always obvious and can be time consuming to assess, Dr. Tierney is currently studying how self-administered cognitive tests can be used in the family doctor’s office and in the direct care of their patients.
With Dr. Tierney committed to this important area of research, there is no doubt that women of all ages and people affected by Alzheimer’s will benefit from her work.
Dr. Mary Tierney is a Professor with the DFCM, a Senior Scientist at the Sunnybrook Research Institute and a clinical neuropsychologist in the division of Veterans Care at Sunnybrook.