Alzheimer’s sets off on its destructive path decades before symptoms appear, spewing untold amounts of damage in the memory centers of the brain before the patient receives a diagnosis.
Early detection would make a big difference for those suffering and their families. Now, that’s come one step closer not just for Alzheimer’s patients but for sufferers of other brain diseases, thanks to a major new study.
In genetic forms of dementia changes in brain structure, fluids or other biological markers can be detected up to two decades before the onset of symptoms. But it may surprise you to know that in the vast majority of dementia cases there’s no known genetic component, making it far more challenging to detect at an early stage.
Many tests have been developed to achieve early diagnosis, yet it remains unclear whether changes in cognition and physical function can be routinely detected before symptoms appear.
Since there’s an urgent need to address this issue, scientists at the University of Cambridge carried out an analysis using the UK Biobank, a databank containing extensive health information on half a million Brits aged between 40 and 69.
Poorer General Health is an Early Red Flag
The Biobank not only contains detailed demographic, genetic and medical information but also includes a battery of tests such as problem solving, memory, reaction times, grip strength, weight changes and the number of falls.
After tracking the participants for up to nine years after the data was collected, the researchers came up with the following:
Compared to those who remained cognitively healthy, participants who developed Alzheimer’s and a rarer form of dementia called frontotemporal dementia scored more poorly in problem-solving tasks, reaction times, remembering lists of numbers, prospective memory (remembering to do something later) and pairs matching.
Those who developed Alzheimer’s and progressive supranuclear palsy – a rare condition that affects balance – were also more likely to have had a fall in the previous 12 months.
For every condition studied – including Parkinson’s disease and dementia with Lewy bodies – patients reported poorer overall health when the study began.
Impairments Are Often Subtle, But Numerous
Dr. Nol Swaddiwudhipong, first author of the study published in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia in October, said: “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. The impairments were often subtle, but across a number of aspects of cognition.
“This is a step towards us 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.”
But it’s not just diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease that these new findings can advance…
Help For Future Treatment
Senior author Dr. Tim Rittman believes the findings help identify people who can take part in clinical trials for potential new treatments.
“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. If we can find these individuals early enough, we’ll have a better chance of seeing if the drugs are effective.”