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New research in Birmingham aims to help aging population of people with HIV

Rick Walton plays cognitive games to keep his mind sharp

Rick Walton routinely plays Majhong on his tablet. He says games like this keep his brain working. "It keeps me sharp it keeps me going it keeps me aware."

Walton was diagnosed with HIV in his 40's. He'll turn 63 this year. "I wasn't supposed to be here I wasn't supposed to make it this far... it's hard to believe that in 1980 you would get diagnosed and you were expected to die within a year."

Walton's not the only one living a long life with HIV. The CDC says 42% of Americans with HIV are now over 50. "This is uncharted territory," says Walton.

As some people with HIV age they are developing problems associated with their disease they never thought about decades ago. Dr. David Vance with UAB's school of nursing is trying to help. He's just received a grant of more than $400,000 to study cognitive training for patients with HAND or HIV Associated Neurocognitive Disorder. "it is a disorder in which people with HIV are not functioning at their normal cognitive level," says Vance.

Dr. Vance says people living with HIV experience neuroinflammation. Over time that can disrupt neurons in the brain causing issues with cognitive function. It may take people with HIV longer to perform everyday functions. "Some brain fog as they call it, may have difficulty finding words for certain things, may take them longer to perform everyday tasks. We also know that some people with HIV experience more driving difficulties," says Vance.

Walton has never been diagnosed with HAND but he says he doesn't have the same grasp on vocabulary that he once did. "There's words I want to use because they much better describe the point or the idea I want to get across and those words used to come to me like that and now they're just not there."

Dr. Vance now hopes to develop specialized training games to improve cognitive functioning for older people with HIV. The games will focus on tasks like visual speed processing, verbal memory, and reasoning. "I'm very excited because no one has done this before even in the scientific community we keep talking about all the issues with HIV and cognition but we don't do very much about it. We just sort of accept there is nothing we can do, I think there is something we can do...now that people are aging with HIV we are focusing on ways to help them age well with the disease."

Dr. Vance's study will take two years to complete. He believes it will provide a treatment to help get rid of the cognitive disorder.

Walton says "There's just so much more we can do and life is not over just because you're HIV positive, it's not over it doesn't end because you get that diagnosis, it's just the beginning."

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