Dementia risk at your fingertips

JOHNS HOPKINS (US) — Seniors worried about their risk of developing dementia can access an online assessment that provides a scientific way to learn about a disease that doctors now believe is best managed if caught early.

The tool, which is being refined and validated, is not meant to replace a full evaluation from a doctor that includes a physical exam, blood work, and imaging studies.

“As the population ages and dementia becomes more prevalent, it’s important to get people diagnosed early,” says Jason Brandt, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University.

“Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia don’t just creep up on you. They’re incubating for decades in the brain. This tool is potentially very useful in determining who is at risk.”

The Dementia Risk Assessment includes a series of questions, including whether a person has a history of high blood pressure, depression, diabetes, high cholesterol, or head injury, all of which are well-documented risk factors for dementia. The assessment also includes a simple memory test that could point to subtle cognitive decline.

The study, published online in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia, analyzed responses from 357 people older than 50.

Those who scored lowest on the memory test were significantly older, and were more likely to be men, have hypertension and report severe memory problems.

While only 9 percent of respondents reported they had severe memory problems, more than one-third said they had a first-degree relative with dementia or severe memory loss—a major risk factor for the condition.

The assessment takes just five to 10 minutes to complete online; the questions were borrowed from other scientifically valid assessments.

The assessment may be helpful in weeding out those who have signs of dementia from those who are simply experiencing the memory loss that comes with aging or a busy lifestyle.

“Our goal is really to educate people about what some of the risk factors are and, often, to put people’s minds at ease,” he says. “We somehow expect our memories to be as good at 50 as they were at 30. We can’t run as fast as we could 20 years ago. Why should our memory be as good?”

The assessment should prompt patients with several risk factors or symptoms to consult a physician. Alzheimer’s disease still has no cure, but early interventions are being used to slow cognitive decline, Brandt says.

Some forms of dementia may not be permanent, and getting to a doctor could help to restore brain function.

Sometimes, seniors are afraid to mention they are having memory or other cognitive issues. The new tool allows them to learn more about themselves and their individualized risk factors in the privacy of their homes.

The aging population means that many more people will be diagnosed with dementia in the coming decades.

“Screening procedures that have demonstrated validity and predictive value and are noninvasive, brief and do not require any special expertise to administer may have the greatest potential to be accepted and actually used by the greatest number of people,” Brandt says.

“This tool, which this study preliminarily validates, is the first step toward developing such a procedure.”

The research was supported by a grant from the Geoffrey Beane Foundation’s GB Gives Back Alzheimer’s Initiative.

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