Researchers Discover Earliest Indicators of Alzheimer's

Alissa Sauer
By Alissa SauerJuly 5, 2017

Alzheimer’s disease develops secretly and silently, usually already in the mid-to-late stages before it is detected. A new study suggests that cognitive testing may reveal early indicators of Alzheimer’s, and researchers hope this non-invasive detection method becomes commonplace in annual checkups for seniors.

Learn more about the importance of early detection for Alzheimer’s and how cognitive tests may help more people seek treatment earlier.

The Importance of Early Alzheimer’s Detection

It is widely accepted that there are seven stages of Alzheimer’s, but in the first and second stages of the disease there are no outward signs or symptoms and there is no noticeable memory loss to family and friends.

It’s not until the disease is in the third stage that friends and family may begin to notice something amiss, and by then, beta amyloid plaques have built up and the disease has ravaged the brain.

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s. There is not even a proven treatment method. So, why would you want to know if you had the earliest stages of the disease?

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, early detection can:

  • Improve access to medical and support services for yourself and loved ones
  • Reduce health care costs
  • Allow for lifestyle changes that may slow the disease
  • Provide more time for legal and financial planning

Cognitive Tests Could Show Earliest Indicators of Alzheimer’s

Researchers hope that identifying and removing amyloid at the preclinical stage of Alzheimer’s will slow or stop the progression of the disease. Until recently, Alzheimer’s was only able to be diagnosed after death. Now, researchers use PET imaging to identify the presence of beta amyloid and a new study suggests that cognitive tests may also help in early detection of the disease.

A recent study found that cognitive tests could be an early detection of Alzheimer’s, allowing people with the disease to seek treatment earlier than ever before. Paul Aisen, senior author of the study and director of the University of Southern California’s Alzheimer’s Therapeutic Research Institute (ATRI) at the Keck School of Medicine says:

“To have the greatest impact on the disease, we need to intervene against amyloid, the basic molecular cause, as early as possible. This study is a significant step toward the idea that elevated amyloid levels are an early stage of Alzheimer’s, an appropriate stage for anti-amyloid therapy.”

Researchers conducted a meta-analysis of over 60 studies to determine if neuropsychological tests could identify early stages of Alzheimer’s in adults over the age of 50 with normal cognition. They found that those who had beta-amyloid present in the brain performed worse on the neuropsychological tests of global cognitive function, including language, memory, processing speed and attention/working memory.

Routine Cognitive Tests for Earlier Alzheimer’s Detection

Duke Han, PhD., neuropsychologist and associate professor of family medicine at the Keck School of Medicine states, “The presumption has been that there would be no perceivable difference in how people with preclinical Alzheimer’s disease perform on cognitive tests. This study contradicts that presumption,” Han says.

Han believes that the study provides an argument for making cognitive testing a routine practice for annual checkups after a certain age.

“Having a baseline measure of cognition before noticing any kind of cognitive change or decline could be incredibly helpful because it’s hard to diagnose early Alzheimer’s disease if you don’t have a frame of reference to compare to,” He continues, “If people would consider getting a baseline evaluation by a qualified neuropsychologist at age 50 or 60, then it could be used as a way to track whether someone is experiencing a true decline in cognition in the future.”

Han went on to expand on the benefits of early detection, saying, “While there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, the earlier you know that you’re at risk for developing it, the more you can potentially do to help stave off that diagnosis in the future. For example, exercise, cognitive activity and social activity have been shown to improve brain health.”

Should cognitive tests be a routine part of annual check ups for seniors? Why or why not? We’d love to hear your opinions in the comments below.

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Alissa Sauer

Alissa Sauer

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