Have you ever lost your keys or blanked on a friend’s name and wondered whether you’re developing Alzheimer’s?
This fear is common among people who are middle-aged and older, many of whom have taken care of a family member with the disease, or know someone who has.
Unfortunately, even the most knowledgeable neuroscientists can’t offer much guidance when it comes to distinguishing between a benign memory lapse and a sign that dementia is looming on the horizon. Current diagnostic tests and scans aren’t always reliable and often have difficulty narrowing down the precise cause of a person’s cognitive impairment.
A recent discovery by researchers from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine may clear up some of this confusion. A team led by David Schretlen, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins, made an important breakthrough that could lead to better identification of (and more effective treatment for) people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. “If we are going to have any hope of helping patients with Alzheimer’s disease, we need to do it as early as possible. Once the brain deteriorates, there’s no coming back,” he says in a press release.
During the study, hundreds of adults aged 60 and over were given a series of tests to gauge their mental agility, attention span, language capabilities and memory recall. Some of the elders had been diagnosed with dementia of varying levels of severity, while others were considered cognitively “normal” for their age. Scientists then plotted each person’s test results and made a startling observation.
The plotted scores of the healthy adults all resembled the same form—a relatively even, bell-shaped curve. Due to individual differences in mental skills, some curves were lower than others, but the overall outline remained consistent.
In people with dementia, however, this curve became lopsided, signaling a decline in certain areas of cognitive functioning. Study authors believe that this uneven appearance could be used to separate mental declines caused by dementia from those caused by normal aging, since a person with early-stage dementia typically experiences the deterioration of some of their mental abilities, but not all.
Further testing needs to be conducted to verify the accuracy of the model discovered by Schretlen and his colleagues, but the pattern holds the promise to help doctors more easily identify individuals with dementia earlier, and thus intervene sooner in the disease process.