It may be possible to spot a telling combination of three specific dementia warning signs up to 9 years before a dementia diagnosis, according to new research.
Decades are a significant marker of life’s passage. Ages 10-20 see someone grow from a child all the way through teenagehood into being an adult. The twenties are usually a ‘figuring out life’ stage, while the thirties see people focus on career or family. So on and so forth; the point being, it’s a huge number of years that no one should take for granted in the context of a medical diagnosis.
New findings published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association by researchers from the University of Cambridge and Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust indicate doctors may be able to detect signs of dementia as many as nine years before dementia is official diagnosed. That time could be utilized in symptom prevention, developing a care plan, and more.
The researchers found that people who eventually developed Alzheimer’s disease had a few things in common: They were more likely to have experienced a fall in the previous twelve months than those who did not develop the disease. They were more likely to have had impairment in problem solving and number recall. And, they were more likely to report poorer overall health. These three factors together, the researchers say, could be a valuable warning.
“This is a step towards us being able to screen people who are at greatest risk,” study first author Nol Swaddiwudhipong said in a press release. “For example, people over 50 or those who have high blood pressure or do not do enough exercise – and intervene at an earlier stage to help them reduce their risk.”
Thus, doctors could intervene and develop intervention plans for people with the highest risk factors.
“When we looked back at patients’ histories, it became clear that they were showing some cognitive impairment several years before their symptoms became obvious enough to prompt a diagnosis,” Swaddiwudhipong said. “The impairments were often subtle, but across several aspects of cognition.”
Research into early dementia warning signs
To complete this study, the authors used information from the biomedical database UK Biobank. They collected information regarding genetic, lifestyle, and healthcare information for half a million people in the UK between the ages of 40 and 69.
The researchers used this data to look back at what symptoms were present at a baseline health level, years before dementia diagnoses took place.
What they discovered was that people who eventually developed dementia scored lower than people who never developed dementia on tests that measured problem-solving skills, memory quizzes, reaction times, matching exercises, and more; they were more likely to have had a recent fall; and they tended to poorer overall health than their counterparts who did not go on to develop Alzheimer’s or a related dementia.
‘If I have these symptoms, do I have dementia?’
According to study senior author Dr. Tim Rittman, it’s important to remember that these indicators don’t automatically mean dementia is present.
“People should not be unduly worried if, for example, they are not good at recalling numbers,” Rittman said. “Even some healthy individuals will naturally score better or worse than their peers. But we would encourage anyone who has any concerns or notices that their memory or recall is getting worse to speak to their GP.”
Only one in seven seniors report receiving a cognitive assessment during their routine checkups, so reporting symptoms to the doctor earlier could help open avenues for conversations about alleviating risks and developing action plans.
The study could also be beneficial to the development of clinical trials, Rittman added.
“The problem with clinical trials is that by necessity they often recruit patients with a diagnosis, but we know that by this point they are already some way down the road and their condition cannot be stopped,” Rittman said. “If we can find these individuals early enough, we’ll have a better chance of seeing if the drugs are effective.” Since people are often not recruited for clinical trials until their conditions have already progressed significantly, earlier intervention could help develop more effective trials and therefore, more effective drugs.
Why is early dementia diagnosis important?
Scientists are hard at work searching for ways to detect Alzheimer’s earlier. Early detection not only gives individuals an opportunity to change their lifestyles, but also offers researchers and doctors more opportunities to study individuals during less traumatic stages of the disease. Some researchers even believe that the frequent failure of clinical drug trials is due in part to the fact that the disease is so often diagnosed at later stages.
“Patients and families can finally stop the ceaseless searching, fruitless testing, and needless referrals to find an answer.” Pierre Tariot, director of the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute, wrote for Being Patient on the topic of early diagnosis. “Education and support can assist the patient and family in finding the best treatments, avoiding harmful and unnecessary treatments, learning to manage symptoms, and planning for the future by establishing wills, proxies, advance directives, and long-term care plans.”
Early diagnosis can also reduce medical costs, help patients plan for future care, develop symptom-reducing habits, and enroll in clinical trials.
In future rounds of research, the team hopes to integrate more tasks to broaden the study’s effectiveness. They also hope to screen potential early dementia cases and find people who would benefit from medical interventions or clinical trials.