SMHS Professor Receives $2 Million for Research on Physical Fitness and Dementia

Qing Zeng, PhD, professor of clinical research and leadership at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), received a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute for Aging (NIA) for research to examine the role of physical fitness in preventing Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (AD/ADRD) in veterans. 

AD/ADRD are debilitating conditions that impair memory and thought processes and are associated with a progressive decline in physical and mental functions and quality of life. The disease places an immense burden on the individual and their family, as well as health care resources. While there are no proven measures to prevent dementia, physical activity has been suggested as a potential intervention that may help prevent AD/ADRD.

“Physical activity improves physical fitness and helps reduce the risk of chronic conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and depression, and some studies suggest that physical activity may also reduce the risk of dementia,” said Zeng, who also serves as a senior scientist at the Washington DC Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VA Medical Center) and is the lead principal investigator for the study. “In the current study, we will use machine learning to examine if physical fitness can be used as an objective biomarker to determine individual’s risk of dementia with the ultimate goal of developing individualized age-sex-race-specific exercise programs to meet the cardiorespiratory fitness threshold needed to reduce that risk” 

Other principal investigators of the study are Peter Kokkinos, PhD, a renowned exercise physiologist, and Edward Zamrini, MD, a neurologist with extensive experience with dementia. Both Kokkinos and Zamrini are adjunct professors of clinical research and leadership at SMHS and scientists at the VA Medical Center. 

For the study, Zeng and her team are collaborating with Ali Ahmed, MD, MPH, and Helen Sheriff, MD, at the VA Medical Center. Together, they have gained access to the national electronic health record data of the Veterans Health Administration, which includes extensive longitudinal data on cardiorespiratory fitness, dementia, and other clinical information. Natural language processing will be used to extract longitudinal records on cardiorespiratory fitness status assessed by a standardized exercise tolerance test. The database will allow the team to assess the effect of cardiorespiratory fitness on ADRD according to gender and ethnicity/race and determine the fitness thresholds for different age groups. 

The team believes that peak metabolic equivalents will be inversely related to the incidence of ADRD. To test their hypothesis, the team will carry out rigorous statistical analysis complemented by novel deep learning modeling methods.

“Results of this research are important for veterans as AD/ADRD primarily affects older adults and over half of the VA patients are over the age 65 years and nearly 1.2 million are 85 years and above,” said Charles Faselis, MD, chief of staff at DC VA Medical Center and professor of medicine at SMHS. “This project also demonstrates how researchers at the George Washington University and the Washington DC Veterans Affairs Medical Center can collaborate to employ advance machine learning techniques to the VA’s big data to derive timely information for the Veterans and the nation.” 

The NIA grant will run through August 2024.  

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