Elderly woman hands putting missing white jigsaw puzzle piece down into the place as a human brain shape. Creative idea for memory loss, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and mental health concept.

More than 6 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's. By 2050, this number is projected to rise to nearly 13 million. (© Orawan - stock.adobe.com)

LUND, Sweden — In the fight against Alzheimer’s disease, properly diagnosing patients can often be a time-consuming and expensive process. Now, researchers in Sweden have created a new tool they say is quick and easy to use. Moreover, their study finds the new testing system can accurately predict who will develop Alzheimer’s within four years.

The team from Lund University explain that this new prognostic algorithm examines simple blood tests and combines those results with a series of fast memory exams to create a dementia risk prediction. Currently, researchers say 20 to 30 percent of patients with Alzheimer’s don’t receive an accurate diagnosis when seeing a specialist. Diagnosing the disease is even more difficult in a primary care facility.

Study authors do point out there are ways of improving the chances of spotting Alzheimer’s. These involve examining tau and beta-amyloid protein levels in a patient’s cerebrospinal fluid. PET (positron emission tomography) brain scans can also help reveal the development of dementia. Unfortunately, these options can be very costly for patients and are generally only available in specialized clinics.

Speeding up Alzheimer’s diagnoses

Professor Oskar Hansson and researchers studied 340 people with mild memory difficulties from the Swedish BioFINDER Study during their project. They confirmed their results in a separate North American study involving 543 people.

Their findings conclude that combining a simple blood test (which measures a variant of the tau protein and a gene that increases Alzheimer’s risk) with three rapid memory tests successfully predicts Alzheimer’s development within four years. Moreover, these tests take only 10 minutes to complete and the tool has an over 90-percent accuracy rate.

“Our algorithm is based on a blood analysis of phosphylactic tau and a risk gene for Alzheimer’s, as well as testing memory and executive ability. We have now developed an online tool to calculate the risk at the individual level that a person with mild memory difficulties will develop Alzheimer’s within 4 years,” explains study first author Sebastian Palmqvist in a university release.

Making dementia exams affordable and available to all patients

Researchers say their new tool has a clear advantage over specialized clinical equipment. Specifically, clinics that don’t have the resources to bring in equipment tailored for detecting dementia and brain disease can use the algorithm. The team sees this becoming a vital tool for primary care doctors who are among the first physicians to see patients possibly dealing with dementia.

“At present, the algorithm has been tested on patients who have been examined in memory clinics. Our hope is that it can also be validated and used in primary care and also make a difference in developing countries where resources for specialized healthcare are more limited,” Palmqvist explains.

Study authors add simpler diagnostic tools may also help speed up the development of disease-slowing drugs. Typically, clinical studies need participants with a given disease which has been detected and confirmed at an early stage.

“But when it comes to Alzheimer’s disease, it is difficult to recruit the right people for drug trials in a feasible and cost-effective way. The algorithm makes it possible to recruit people with Alzheimer’s at an early stage of their disease, as new drugs have a better chance of slowing down the development of the disease,” Professor Hansson concludes.

The study appears in the journal Nature Medicine.

About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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