Trouble with memory, thinking could predict Alzheimer’s 18 years before diagnosis

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American scientists are warning that early signs of Alzheimer’s disease could appear in people nearly two decades before the disease can be diagnosed. Errors with memory and thinking tests could foreshadow dementia decades later in life, they suggest.

Doctors at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago say their findings could point to who in their middle-age could be at risk of Alzheimer’s.

“The changes in thinking and memory that precede obvious symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease begin decades before,” lead researcher, Dr. Kumar Rajan, said.

“While we cannot currently detect such changes in individuals at risk, we were able to observe them among a group of individuals who eventually developed dementia due to Alzheimer’s,” he said.

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READ MORE: Scientists look into why most Alzheimer’s patients are women

Rajan’s study had 2,125 people in Chicago take memory and thinking tests every three years over the course of 18 years. The average age of volunteers was 73 and they were all without Alzheimer’s disease.

Forty per cent of the group developed Alzheimer’s disease during the study, though. And it turns out, those who scored lower overall on the tests had an increased risk of being diagnosed.

During the first year of the study, people with the lowest test scores were 10 times more likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s than their counterparts with the highest scores.

READ MORE: Women make up 72 per cent of Alzheimer’s patients, Alzheimer Society of Canada says

Rajan’s full findings were published in the journal Neurology. Read the full findings here.

People living with dementia often have trouble remembering things at the onset of their disease.

According to the Alzheimer Society of Canada, some 747,000 people are living with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias – the number is projected to rise to 1.4 million by 2031.

Seventy-four per cent of us know someone with dementia, the organization says.

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READ MORE: Half of Canadians with dementia wait too long for diagnosis, Alzheimer Society warns

If dementia care were a country, it would be the world’s 18th largest economy, ranking between Turkey and Indonesia, according to Alzheimer Disease International.

Changes in the brain that lead to dementia can begin up to 25 years before symptoms begin, the Canadian group says. Women account for about 72 per cent of the country’s cases of Alzheimer’s.

Age remains the biggest factor for dementia; the risk doubles every five years after 65.

The causes of dementia are not fully understood and there’s still no cure. That’s why health officials urge patients and family members to look out for signs of the onset of the disease.

READ MORE: ‘Woefully unprepared’ for world dementia epidemic, report warns

What are the symptoms and warning signs of dementia?

As many as 50 per cent of Canadians with dementia are not diagnosed early enough, losing valuable time when intervention can help these people with managing their daily lives.

The Alzheimer Society documents a list of 10 signs to watch for:

  • Memory loss affecting day-to-day abilities – forgetting things often or struggling to retain new information.
  • Difficulty performing familiar tasks – forgetting how to do something you’ve been doing your whole life, such as preparing a meal or getting dressed.
  • Problems with language – forgetting words or substituting words that don’t fit the context.
  • Disorientation in time and space – not knowing what day of the week it is or getting lost in a familiar place.
  • Impaired judgment – not recognizing a medical problem that needs attention or wearing light clothing on a cold day.
  • Problems with abstract thinking – not understanding what numbers signify on a calculator, for example, or how they’re used.
  • Misplacing things – putting things in strange places, like an iron in the freezer or a wristwatch in the sugar bowl.
  • Changes in mood and behaviour– exhibiting severe mood swings from being easy-going to quick-tempered.
  • Changes in personality – behaving out of character such as feeling paranoid or threatened.
  • Loss of initiative – losing interest in friends, family and favourite activities.


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