When it comes to our health, earlier is often better. For instance, adopting healthy habits at an early age can protect you from serious health problems later in life. Even getting diagnosed with a health condition like dementia early on can be better in terms of being able to manage symptoms, slow its progression and improve life outcomes.
Now, new research published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association reports it’s possible to spot signs of various dementia-related diseases up to nine years before actually receiving a diagnosis.
It’s possible to spot signs of various dementia-related diseases up to nine years before actually receiving a diagnosis.
“We found changes in memory and thinking and general function between five and nine years before people were given a diagnosis of dementia or similar movement disorders,” Timothy Rittman, PhD, co-author and senior clinical research fellow in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Cambridge, told Seasons.
He said the study opens up the possibility of screening people early on so they can take part in and benefit from trials of new drugs or even begin preventive strategies and interventions.
“This means there might be a window of opportunity to try and catch dementia early,” Rittman said. “If we can find a treatment that works at this very earliest stage, it might stop it from developing into something that cannot be stopped.”
What else the study found
Rittman and his colleagues examined data from the UK Biobank, which included more than 500,000 people between the ages of 40 to 69 who were recruited between 2006 and 2010.
The researchers found that participants who eventually developed Alzheimer’s performed poorly on tests that involved remembering lists of numbers, pair matching, problem-solving tasks and reaction times compared to people who did not develop dementia. These tests were taken five to nine years before participants received a dementia diagnosis.
“We were worried that these might be people who just did badly on tests at any stage of life; however, we tested this by looking to see whether people got worse at the tests the closer they got to the time of diagnosis,” Rittman said. “They did, giving us evidence that the poor performance on the tests is linked to an underlying dementia.”
They also found the following:
- Participants who developed Alzheimer’s were more likely to have fallen in the previous 12 months.
- Those who developed a rare disease called progressive supranuclear palsy, which affects balance, were more than twice as likely as other participants to have had a fall.
- Participants who developed dementia-related diseases were more likely to have impairment in problem-solving and number recall.
Some health experts say while this study highlights that falls, slower reaction times and poor memory could be early signs of dementia-related diseases, it’s difficult to connect any kind of early symptom to this disease.
“One reason is that many of these early signs could be connected to many chronic diseases that people have, including heart disease, diabetes and others,” Mike Sevilla, MD, a family physician in Salem, Ohio, told Seasons. “If someone falls more than other people, it could be that their arthritis is worse than other people and not necessarily a dementia-related illness.”
Sevilla said this is why it sometimes takes years to determine whether a person has a dementia-related illness rather than a complication of another health condition.
Importance of early detection of dementia and Alzheimer’s
According to David Merrill, MD, PhD, psychiatrist and director at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute, identifying symptoms that predict Alzheimer’s early before the onset of the full-blown syndrome can help identify at-risk patients. Once family members, caregivers and medical providers know a patient is at high risk of developing Alzheimer’s, they can learn supportive ways to help them improve any modifiable health risks.
Once family members, caregivers and medical providers know a patient is at high risk of developing Alzheimer’s, they can learn supportive ways to help them improve any modifiable health risks.
For example, Merrill said it’s estimated that up to 8% of Alzheimer’s cases are attributable to undiagnosed or untreated hearing loss.
“If someone is on the fence about whether or not to get their hearing checked, or to use hearing aids, knowing their Alzheimer’s risk may help them decide that it’s worth it to get tested and use the hearing aids to help prevent the development of Alzheimer’s,” he said.
In addition, knowing you’re at higher risk for a neurodegenerative disease may also help encourage positive behavior changes around lifestyle factors like diet, exercise, sleep and stress management.
“A lot of times, patients will say they don’t want to know because there is no cure,” Merrill said. “But we now know that having an earlier diagnosis allows more time to intervene in significant ways that end up delaying the onset of dementia and also slowing the decline once it starts.”
…having an earlier diagnosis allows more time to intervene in significant ways that end up delaying the onset of dementia and also slowing the decline once it starts.
He added that identifying symptoms early before a diagnosis can also help health care professionals identify good candidates for prevention research for conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
“It may be that with earlier intervention, the onset of the full-blown disease syndromes can be delayed, or even prevented in some cases,” Merrill said.
When it comes to dementia-related diseases, there are a handful of signs and symptoms patients and caregivers can be on the lookout for, Sevilla said:
- Difficulty with speech
- Muscle spasms/twitching, muscle tremors and muscles being very tight or rigid
- Abnormal behavior such as a sudden decline in personal hygiene or inappropriate social behavior
“Today, it’s becoming increasingly popular for Millennial parents to take care of not only their children but their parents or even their grandparents,” Sevilla added. “It’s important for these types of households or families to understand the signs of dementia-related illnesses so they can get the help their loved ones need.”
- Memory loss and forgetting information like important dates or events
- Difficulty with planning and problem solving like keeping track of monthly bills
- Challenges completing familiar tasks like driving to a relative’s home
- Confusion with time or place and the passage of time
- Trouble understanding visual images or seeing
- New problems with writing, speaking or joining a conversation
- Placing things in unusual places, missing items or losing the ability to retrace steps
- Decreased decision-making or poor judgment
- Withdrawal from work or social gatherings and activities
- Changes in mood or personality