Could this new test pave the way for detecting Alzheimer’s?

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Your aging grandparents might not remember where they left their car keys, but how can they predict if their forgetfulness is a red flag for dementia? Scientists have developed a new test in hopes of differentiating between normal brain decline and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

Mayo Clinic doctors say they’ve developed a three-part test and scoring system that could be used by frontline health care workers to predict risk of Alzheimer’s in their patients.

“Our goal is to identify people who are at the highest risk for dementia as early as possible,” study author, Dr. Ronald Petersen, said.

“Understanding what factors can help us predict who will develop this initial stage of memory and thinking problems, called mild cognitive impairment is crucial because people with MCI have an increased risk of developing dementia…this allows for a wider window of opportunity to initiate preventative measures,” he explained.

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READ MORE: What are the early warning signs and symptoms of dementia?

His team built a three-part test that was used on nearly 1,500 patients who were between 70 and 89 years old. They didn’t have memory and thinking problems at the onset of the study.

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Every 15 months for five years, the seniors took on memory and thinking tests. By the end of the study, 401 people – or 28 per cent of the group – developed cognitive impairment issues.

The first part of the test takes medical records into account: education level, number of medications, history of stroke, diabetes or smoking.

READ MORE: What Alzheimer’s disease and heart health, diabetes have in common

The second considers how well the participants fared on their thinking ability tests as well as their mental health – if the seniors were grappling with depression or anxiety, both factors tied to dementia.

The third factor was how quickly the seniors could walk in short distances. Keep in mind, as research into the disease gains speed, findings suggest that physical health and exercise have been key to staving off dementia.

READ MORE: Being active a key to preventing some dementia cases, report says

The scientists assigned each factor a score based on how much they contributed to the risk of developing thinking problems. Being diagnosed with diabetes before age 75, for example, increased a patient’s risk score by 14 points. Having less than 12 years of education increased the risk by two points.

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In the end, women’s scores were divvied up into four groups – the lowest had less than 27 points while the highest clocked in with more than 46. For both sexes, those in the highest group of risk scores were seven times more likely to develop cognitive impairment than their counterparts with low scores.

The researchers are hopeful their scoring system could be used by primary care physicians and neurologists alike. It’s inexpensive and easy to use, they say. Family doctors could start testing at age 65 to create a baseline to compare against as their patients age, they suggest.

But they concede that their findings need to be replicated before their test is used widely.

READ MORE: Inside the world of dementia, as a painful reality sets in

About 747,000 Canadians are living with some form of dementia and the society says this number is slated to double to 1.4 million in less than 20 years.

The risk of dementia doubles every five years after age 65. Common warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease include memory loss, impaired judgment, thinking or reasoning and changes in personality and behaviour that are out of character.

Petersen’s findings were published in the journal Neurology.


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