Scientists detect dementia signs 9 years before diagnosis

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Dementia is not a specific disease but is rather a general term for the impaired ability to remember, think, or make decisions that interfere with everyday activities.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. Though dementia mostly affects older adults, it is not a part of normal aging.

In a study from Cambridge, scientists found that it is possible to spot signs of brain impairment in patients as early as nine years before they receive a diagnosis for one of a number of dementia-related diseases.

They analyzed data from the UK Biobank and found impairment in several areas, such as problem-solving and number recall, across a range of conditions.

The findings raise the possibility that in the future, at-risk patients could be screened to help select those who would benefit from interventions to reduce their risk of developing one of the conditions or to help identify patients suitable for recruitment to clinical trials for new treatments.

There are currently very few effective treatments for dementia or other neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease.

In part, this is because these conditions are often only diagnosed once symptoms appear, whereas the underlying neurodegeneration may have begun years—even decades—earlier.

In the study, the team turned to UK Biobank, a biomedical database and research resource containing anonymized genetic, lifestyle and health information from half a million UK participants aged 40-69.

As well as collecting information on participants’ health and disease diagnoses, UK Biobank collected data from a battery of tests including problem-solving, memory, reaction times and grip strength, as well as data on weight loss and gain and on the number of falls.

The team found people who went on to develop Alzheimer’s disease scored more poorly compared to healthy individuals when it came to problem-solving tasks, reaction times, remembering lists of numbers, prospective memory (our ability to remember to do something later on) and pair matching.

This was also the case for people who developed a rarer form of dementia known as frontotemporal dementia.

People who went on to develop Alzheimer’s were more likely than healthy adults to have had a fall in the previous 12 months.

Those patients who went on to develop a rare neurological condition known as progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), which affects balance, were more than twice as likely as healthy individuals to have had a fall.

For every condition studied—including Parkinson’s disease and dementia with Lewy bodies—patients reported poorer overall health at baseline.

The team says this is a step towards doctors being able to screen people who are at greatest risk—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.

f you care about dementia, please read studies about new drugs for incurable vascular dementia, and these things may have the biggest impact on your dementia risk.

For more information about brain health, please see recent studies about antioxidants that could help reduce dementia risk, and Vitamin D deficiency linked to higher dementia risk.

The study was conducted by Nol Swaddiwudhipong et al and published in Alzheimers & Dementia.

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