MINNEAPOLIS — A simple memory test could help doctors predict the onset of dementia at least a decade before patients start to show symptoms of the disease. Researchers contributing to the American Academy of Neurology say those who performed poorly on this test were three times as likely to develop cognitive impairment. The tool opens the door to lifestyle changes or medications for patients during a period when they are most likely to work — before symptoms actually emerge.
“There is increasing evidence that some people with no thinking and memory problems may actually have very subtle signs of early cognitive impairment,” says study author Ellen Grober, PhD, of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in a media release. “In our study, a sensitive and simple memory test predicted the risk of developing cognitive impairment in people who were otherwise considered to have normal cognition.”
Researchers note that Alzheimer’s drug trials often fail because patients typically enter these programs after the disease has already taken hold. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, a disease which impacts approximately six million people in the United States, according to the CDC.
Poor memory skills could signal dementia within 3 years
The new study involved 969 people with an average age of 69 who did not have any thinking or memory problems at the outset. Study authors divided the participants into five groups — stages zero through four — based on test scores, as part of the SOMI (Stages of Objective Memory Impairment) system. The team then followed these individuals for up to 10 years.
People who were at stages three and four were three times as likely to develop cognitive impairment during this follow-up period. Stage zero represents no memory problems. Stages one and two reflect increasing difficulty with retrieving memories, which can precede dementia by five to eight years.
These participants continue to be able to remember items after receiving cues. In the third and fourth stages, however, people cannot remember all the items even after receiving cues. These stages precede dementia by one to three years.
After adjusting for Alzheimer’s biomarkers including rogue brain proteins called beta amyloid and tau, the SOMI system continued to predict an increased risk of disease onset. Researchers estimated that after 10 years about 72 percent of those in the third and fourth stages would have developed cognitive impairment. This was compared to 57, 35, and 21 percent of those in stage two, one, and zero, respectively.
“Our results support the use of the SOMI system to identify people most likely to develop cognitive impairment,” Dr. Grober explains. “Detecting cognitive impairment at its earliest stages is beneficial to researchers investigating treatments. It also could benefit those people who are found to be at increased risk by consulting with their physician and implementing interventions to promote healthy brain aging.”
1 in 4 participants developed cognitive impairment
In the test, people viewed four cards, each with drawings of four items on them. They had to identify the item belonging to a particular category. For example, participants would name the item “grapes” after researchers asked them to identify a “fruit.”
Participants also had to recall the items. This measures their ability to retrieve information. Then, for items they did not remember, they received specific category cues. This phase measures memory storage. Almost half of the participants (47%) were in stage zero, 35 percent in stage one, 13 percent in stage two, and five percent in stages three and four combined.
Out of all the participants, 234 people developed cognitive impairment. The study authors took into account potentially aggravating factors including age, gender, education, and a gene mutation known as APOE4 that increases a carrier’s risk of Alzheimer’s disease later in life.
The findings appear in the journal Neurology.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.