As with many other diseases, early detection of Alzheimer's is everything. If the disease is caught in the earliest stages, there are ways for physicians to intervene and not only slow the progression, but even potentially reverse some of the damage. A new study published by the journal Neurology offers hope to millions by finding that signs of Alzheimer's can be detected nearly two decades before the disease sets in; ample time to intervene and preserve quality of life.
The 18-year-long study utilized over 2,000 senior citizens from the Chicago area who repeated a test that assessed memory and general cognition every three years. Over time, they were able to see clear patterns among those that ended up developing Alzheimer's disease.
"The changes in thinking and memory that precede obvious symptoms of Alzheimer's disease begin decades before," the study's lead author Kumar Rajan said in a press release. "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."
By looking back at the test scores of those who developed Alzheimer's versus those that did not, the researchers were able to identify some general risk factors of the disease. Ultimately, this could be integrated into screenings that pinpoint cognitive decline in the earliest possible stages.
The biggest predictor of disease didn't come from those who had a decline in scores over the duration of the study. Instead, they found that those with lower scores from the first round of testing where 10 times more likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's than those who initially scored higher.
"While that risk is lower than the same one unit lower performance when measured in the year before dementia assessment, the observation that lower test scores 13 to 18 years later indicates how subtle declines in cognitive function affect future risk," Rajan explained.
Further investigation is still needed in order to find how these cognitive tests connect with other Alzheimer's risk factors, including genetics and lifestyle factors. A more ethnically diverse study group could also solidify these results, and a longer term study could find when the absolute earliest signs of potential disease first appear, offering the best chance to make a meaningful intervention
"A general current concept is that in development of Alzheimer's disease, certain physical and biologic changes precede memory and thinking impairment," Rajan concluded. "If this is so, then these underlying processes may have a very long duration. Efforts to successfully prevent the disease may well require a better understanding of these processes near middle age."
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