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24 November 2021

The five-minute test that warns of dementia, years before symptoms start

Developing Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia is many Britons’ worst fear when it comes to ageing, according to a recent survey by YouGov.

And it’s easy to see why. Outside the pandemic years, when Covid deaths slightly outnumbered dementia deaths (by 0.6 per cent), dementia and Alzheimer’s disease have been the leading cause of mortality in the UK. In care homes it’s to blame for more than 65 per cent of deaths, data from the Office for National Statistics show.

But would you want to know, more than a decade in advance, that dementia was to be your fate?

How would that devastating news change your life, especially when there may be little you can do to delay its onset and science has repeatedly failed to come up with drugs to cure — or even radically slow — its progress?

These difficult questions are no longer just hypothetical, according to a report in The Daily Mail.

In Britain, a University of Cambridge spin-off company, called Cognetivity Neurosciences, is beginning NHS trials of a simple, five-minute diagnostic test that, the firm claims, will instantly and accurately predict your risk of Alzheimer’s in up to 15 years’ time.

The timing of this is significant as Britain faces an epidemic of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia owing to its ageing population. The numbers affected are forecast to jump from around 800,000 to more than 1.2 million in England and Wales by 2040.

Yet most people are only diagnosed once symptoms — such as severe memory loss, confusion, forgetting words or becoming anxious and withdrawn — start to appear.

The new test is remarkably simple, says James Medcalf, commercial director of Cognetivity Neurosciences.

‘In the test you are shown quickly — only for about 100 milliseconds — pictures that feature either an animal or no animal. You are asked to respond quickly by pressing “yes” or “no”, depending on whether you see an animal,’ he says.

‘In evolutionary terms, spotting an animal very quickly was vital for our survival. The task involves some of the most basic structures of our brains, such as the amygdala, which helps to regulate our fight-or-flight responses.’

As the test relies purely on instinctive responses, we don’t consciously learn how to perform it, so practice cannot improve a person’s scores over time.

But why is this reaction important in terms of predicting dementia risk?

‘In the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s, it is not memory that gets affected,’ says Mr Medcalf.

‘Research shows instead that it is your brain’s processing speed that starts to slow, and this is what the new test shows.’

It is designed to work on screens such as an Apple iPad. The company says the test is so straightforward that it plans to sell an abbreviated two-minute form to anyone who wants to use it at home.

‘You could use it every day, to track how you’re doing over the weeks,’ adds Mr Medcalf.

Pilot projects are under way at three NHS trusts, in Staffordshire, Sussex and the West Midlands, and two care homes, to try to pick up signs of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), where people start forgetting names, have trouble planning or organising things or get easily distracted.

But how helpful is it to find out years in advance that you may be on course for an incurable illness?

Hannah Churchill, research communications manager at the Alzheimer’s Society, told Good Health: ‘There is no sure-fire way to prevent the onset of dementia. Researchers believe that only around 40 per cent of cases may be preventable, by addressing risk factors such as hearing loss, smoking, excess drinking or obesity. The other 60 per cent of dementia cases may not be linked to modifiable risk factors. Our age and genetics will also play a role and are outside our control.’

But not everyone thinks this renders risk-testing useless. ‘There has always been this argument in dementia care: should we bother doing something if we can’t do anything about it?’ says Mr Medcalf. ‘I say yes — at the very least you can put your affairs in order and give legal power of attorney to your loved ones in good time.’

However, research suggests people prefer not to know their risk of dementia.

The Social Care Institute for Excellence, a UK charity, says many people with early signs of dementia ‘choose not to seek a diagnosis’ because of concerns about the effect on their jobs, social lives and ability to drive.

But there are advantages to an early diagnosis. ‘For many, a dementia diagnosis may be a relief — an explanation for the changes they’ve been experiencing, especially if they have lived with symptoms for years,’ says Hannah Churchill.

‘And early diagnosis means better access to personalised care and support, such as occupational therapy, which means people with dementia can live well for longer.’



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