While researchers haven’t yet found a way to prevent or cure dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, they’re making progress on how to catch it early. The findings from three new studies, two from the University of Wisconsin and one from Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center, are important for better understanding cognitive declines that steal life from the living and strain the health care system.
The university created the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention to study men and women with family histories of dementia. One of the new studies found a correlation between hearing loss and mild cognitive decline in 9.2 percent of 783 participants over four years. Hearing loss is easy to measure and could be a readily observable early-warning sign of dementia.
The study documented the hearing loss among participants in late middle age, compared to traditional dementia studies focusing on older people, and that is important because treatment for dementia should begin as early as possible. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine noted that last month in a report lamenting the significant gaps in knowledge about Alzheimer’s and recommending a doubling down on research into dementia.
The second University of Wisconsin study found a correlation between diminished oral fluency and cognitive decline in about 25 percent of 264 participants, who were drawn from the registry and followed for as long as 10 years. Researchers noted hesitations, word repetition and other minor changes in some of those who also were found to have experienced cognitive loss.
As with hearing decline, these are changes that might easily be measured and used as a red flag, perhaps in the general practitioner’s office, where screening for dementia should become as common as it is for depression and other chronic diseases.
In its study, Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center, part of the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, found a correlation between cognitive declines and older people who have a higher number of hospitalizations for emergency care. This is another possible warning sign.
The National Academies said they were unable to provide definitive advice on how to prevent Alzheimer’s, the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S., because research studies hadn’t provided enough clues. Their report said the best steps now are for people to be active, keep stimulating their brains and ride herd on their blood pressure — measures long considered important for general physical and brain health.
The academy also called for more research into dementia, including studies that focus on different social groups, such as young adults, with an eye toward early detection. The University of Wisconsin and Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center researchers already were on the case. With more studies like these, the pieces of the Alzheimer’s puzzle will start to fall into place.