When it comes to Alzheimer’s disease, early detection can make a huge difference in determining the course of a patient’s treatment.
But now doctors are estimating that Alzheimer’s may start long before even the earliest symptoms become apparent – up to 20 years before symptoms manifest.
It Happens a Lot Earlier Than Anticipated…
For the past 18 years, associate professor of internal medicine at Rush University Medical Centre Kumar Rajan has studied the effects of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, as well as the aging process of patients without these conditions.
Rajan and his colleagues followed over 2,000 elderly people – patients with an average age of 73 – assessing their mental skills and capacity with various tests.
What they found is that of the patients who went on to receive an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, many of them scored lower on the tests throughout the study period than those who did not eventually receive an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. In fact, the patients’ risk of a future Alzheimer’s diagnosis increased with each drop in their test scores.
The study, eventually published in the journal Neurology, concluded that “cognitive impairment may manifest in the preclinical phase of [Alzheimer’s disease] dementia substantially earlier than previously established.”(1)
Related: 9 Key Lifestyle Changes for Preventing Alzheimer’s and Dementia
Implications For Alzheimer’s Patients
Although Rajan stressed that more research is needed to study the range of decline that can signal Alzheimer’s dementia, the findings are promising in that they present a non-invasive way of determining Alzheimer’s risk well before the onset of clinical symptoms.
The hope is that the results of this research may ultimately give individuals a longer period of time in which to perform interventions to slow down the disease’s progression.
Several lifestyle factors are associated with delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and ameliorating symptoms, from diet(2) to exercise(3).
Obviously, the earlier a patient can get an indication of whether or not they’re at risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease, the sooner they can make adjustments to their lifestyle to delay the onset of the disease.
The Next Steps
Rajan hopes to continue studying Alzheimer’s disease, particularly the effects which exercises that stimulate the brain can have on the onset of the disease. There is an abundant amount of evidence that “brain teasers” like crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and other similar activities can slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease(4).
The idea is that constant stimulation can keep healthy parts of the brain active and unaffected by the disease for longer.
There’s also evidence that a lifetime of such activity can build up “reserves” of brainpower, which can also help maintain brain function as Alzheimer’s sets in – in other words, individuals with longer educational backgrounds, people who read more, and those who generally take the time to “exercise” not only their bodies but their brains as well have a better chance of staving off the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s disease than those who don’t.