Testing For Cognitive Decline Made Easier

Written by Brenda Kelly Kim

 In any form of disease, the sooner a diagnosis is found, the sooner treatment can begin.

Finding a health problem early is the best way to increase the chances of a good outcome. This is especially true in cognitive impairment. Whether it’s normal age-related memory issues, or something more severe, like Alzheimer’s, knowing where a patient is, cognitively, is crucial.

Diagnostic tests like looking for biomarkers in the blood are not available for most cases of dementia. Alzheimer’s has no definitive test that can say with the same certainty as an X-ray or other assays that there is a problem. Many patients must go through complex neuropsychological testing and detailed questionnaires on their health and habits. These kinds of tests are time-consuming and can be expensive as well. They are not entirely objective either, because confounding factors like IQ, socioeconomic status, and environmental factors such as places of residence. Estimates from the WHO and the CDC have shown that globally, the number of older adults that will develop dementia is growing every year. Right now about 50 million people worldwide are living with some form of cognitive decline, so anything that aids in early detection is vital.

A team of researchers from the UK and Switzerland has developed a remarkably simple assessment that their study suggests could help improve the process of early diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment (MCI.) About 30 to 50 percent of patients with MCI will go on to develop Alzheimer’s so a test that can measure impairment would be useful in helping patients and their caregivers set up early interventions like therapy, activities, or diet changes to stay as healthy as possible for as long as possible.

The research included UK researchers Dr. Trudi Edginton from City, University of London and Dr. Alison Eardley from the University of Westminster and was led by Professor Micah Murray from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. It was published in the journal Scientific Reports. The cohort was 123 participants. Of the group, 51 were healthy young adults, 49 were healthy older adults, and the remaining 23 were older adults with a diagnosis of MCI. What they were asked to do was quite simple, but provided results the scientists say were valuable. Volunteers were asked to push a button whenever they hear a sound or see a light flash. The sounds and lights were visible on a laptop screen, but the team says that it’s possible that an app for a smartphone or tablet could come out of the work.

The patients in the study had to indicate when they heard just a sound, saw just a light or when they noticed both at the same time. The speed at which they indicated what they had seen or heard was measured. Cognition is often assessed via the sense of hearing or vision, so the test, while simple, can show quite a bit about a patient’s mental acuity. Using just the two measurements of whether they were faster at detecting light or sound and how fast they were able to detect a combination of both, the researchers say they were able to tell which had MCI and which did not accurately.

Professor Murray explained the work, stating “We are particularly excited about this work because it shows how very simple tests can help clinical practice by reaching a wider population, at a lower cost. We are happy that our findings clarify the link between our vision and hearing and their role in supporting memory (dys-)function; it becomes increasingly clear that how preserved our cognitive skills are as we age depends on how intact our senses are. This importantly extends our similar existing findings in school-age children.”

The clip below talks about cognitive impairment and some of the signs to look for, check it out.


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