John Lydon describes his wife's battle with Alzheimer's
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There are several signs of dementia that could occur as much as nine years before signs become “obvious enough” to need a diagnosis, scientists have found in a recent study. Researchers noted that people who went on to develop Alzheimer’s disease showed “subtle” thinking problems – including slower reaction times.
This opens up the possibility to intervene against the condition at an earlier time, the authors of the study suggested.
Dementia, which affects roughly 900,000 people, is diagnosed when significant problems with brain function – such as memory or thinking – have been noticed because they affect everyday life.
There’s currently no way to stop the condition after it has been diagnosed.
In the study, published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, researchers from the University of Cambridge looked at the health information of thousands of people in the UK over the years to see if it was possible to detect changes in brain function before the onset of symptoms.
First author Nol Swaddiwudhipong of the University of Cambridge, said: “When we looked back at patients’ histories, it became clear that they were showing some cognitive impairment several years before their symptoms became obvious enough to prompt a diagnosis.
“The impairments were often subtle, but across a number of aspects of cognition.”
The researchers used data from the UK Biobank – a database that contains the health information of half a million people in the UK.
The Biobank also contains the participants’ results from a series of tests including problem-solving, memory, reaction times, and grip strength, as well as data on weight loss and gain and on the number of falls.
This allowed the researchers to look back and see whether any signs were present at the baseline – that is, when measurements were first collected from participants between five and nine years prior to diagnosis.
The five signs
It turns out that people who went on to develop Alzheimer’s disease were worse than healthy people at problem-solving, reaction times, remembering lists of numbers, prospective memory (the ability to remember to do something later on), and pair matching.
These people were also more likely to have a fall within a year of their Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
Swaddiwudhipong said: “This is a step towards us being able to screen people who are at greatest risk – for example, people over 50 or those who have high blood pressure or do not do enough exercise – and intervene at an earlier stage to help them reduce their risk.”
The study shouldn’t be a cause for “unduly” concern, the health researchers also explained. Some difficulty with memory recall is often a normal sign of ageing.
And some healthy people do worse than their peers with memory tasks.
Senior author Dr Tim Rittman said: “People should not be unduly worried if, for example, they are not good at recalling numbers.
“Even some healthy individuals will naturally score better or worse than their peers. But we would encourage anyone who has any concerns or notices that their memory or recall is getting worse to speak to their GP.”
As Alzheimer’s progresses, it may cause more intense memory issues that will affect everyday life.
The Alzheimer’s Society explains that people with the disease may:
- lose items (such as keys and glasses) around the house
- forget a friend’s name, or struggle to find the right word in a conversation
- forget about recent conversations or events
- get lost in a familiar place or on a familiar journey
- forget appointments or significant dates.
People with Alzheimer’s will usually go on to develop problems with speech. They may repeat themselves and find it hard to follow a conversation.
They may also have difficulty concentrating, planning, or organising and struggle to carry out a sequence of tasks.
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