Diabetes, obesity and dementia
An estimated 120,000 Washington state residents ages 65 and older are living with Alzheimer’s dementia, according to data included in a recent report from the Alzheimer’s Association. That number is projected to increase 16.7% in the next five years. No FDA-approved pharmacologic treatments currently exist to prevent, slow or cure the disease.
But one Columbia River High School student has turned her longstanding interest in medicine, pathology and anatomy into a research project that is now drawing attention from the scientific community.
Inspired in part by her own family history, Bridgette Bromell focused her research on risk factors for developing dementia, specifically vascular dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
“When I was reading some initial research papers, the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease reminded me of atherosclerosis, a disease that has been linked to obesity, diabetes and other conditions that affect the blood,” Bridgette explained.
The high school senior decided to conduct a meta-analysis of existing research for an advanced biology class project. “It was a self-driven project where all students got to choose their own topics, so it let me pursue the path of inquiry I was excited about,” said Bridgette, who is part of the school’s International Baccalaureate program.
“Although there is a decent amount of research in the scientific community on obesity and diabetes as risk factors for either Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia or in some cases both, there is not a very clear consensus. … So I wanted to see—in a wide range of studies, in a wide pool of candidates—what was the correlation.”
Though new to her initially, a meta analysis proved to be a valuable way to proceed. “Even though I’m a high school student who has a passion for brain science and brain function and these diseases, I simply do not have the resources to access a wide group of people with these diseases,” she said. “Honestly, a ton of scientists likely face the same problem with study recruitment. It’s the reason that meta analyses are so important, because they let us see across a wide range of studies and a huge group of candidates.”
Biology teacher Kelly Cameron praised Bridgette’s work ethic. “Bridgette is an extraordinary young woman who proactively challenges herself in a variety of different challenges. She goes beyond her comfort zone to find answers to the questions that she is interested in. She taught herself many new skills to be able to analyze the various studies and data available and determine which ones were reliable,” Cameron said.
Bridgette entered the project in science fairs, including the Washington State Science Fair, earning a scholarship from the Bremerton Central Lions Club as a result. Eventually she was selected to be one of six 2020 Washington state delegates to the upcoming convention of the American Junior Academy of Sciences, an invitation-only research honor society for high school scientists. The convention will be held in 2021 in conjunction with a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, giving the delegates access to professionals in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
Bridgette hopes that her work could be used to help guide future research. “This meta analysis pointed toward a connection between diabetes mellitus and obesity as risk factors for both [Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia]. So, scientists in the future could look into these diseases to better understand how they operate and try to find treatment or a cure, or even just understand why these things are risk factors to begin with and if there any correlations between the diseases that we’re seeing.”