Johns Hopkins researchers have come up with a 13-point test of mental skills that they say could help determine whether memory loss in older adults is simply a minor "senior moment" or a sign of early Alzheimer's disease.
The test was devised by analyzing scores from standard cognitive-skills tests given to 528 people aged 60 and over, who were referred to the Johns Hopkins Medical Psychology Clinic as part of a dementia work-up between 1996 and 2004. The results were compared to those of 135 healthy older adults who participated in a study of normal aging. Both groups completed tests of memory, language, attention, processing speed, and drawing abilities from which 13 scores were recorded.
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The results showed the scores of healthy adults tended to follow a symmetrical, bell-shaped curve — with most scores high, a few a little lower, and a few lower. By those who were experiencing early signs of dementia showed a lopsided pattern in their scores, resulting in an asymmetrical bell-shaped curve.
The researchers concluded the test could be used to predict which people were more likely to develop dementia, even before obvious symptoms surface — a marked improvement over current methods that allow doctors to identify only 5 percent to 10 percent of people with mild cognitive impairment who are likely to progress to dementia.
"Departures from the normal bell-shaped pattern of variability on cognitive tests might determine which people with low scores develop dementia," said David J. Schretlen, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who led the study, published online in the journal Neuropsychology.
Schretlen said doctors could also use the new model to reassure patients who are not at risk of dementia, while fast-tracking interventions for those who are.
"If we are going to have any hope of helping patients with Alzheimer's disease, we need to do it as early as possible," Schretlen noted. "Once the brain deteriorates, there's no coming back."
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