Dementia is a widespread neurological disorder that impacts millions of people worldwide. The disease affects memory, cognition, and behavior, and there is no known cure. Early detection of cognitive impairment, especially with Alzheimer’s disease, can help people combat long-term memory issues. Now, a simple memory test may be able to predict future cognitive decline in people with no current memory or thinking problems.

In this blog post, we will look at the findings of a recent study that suggests a simple memory test may help predict people’s risk of cognitive decline. We will also discuss how early detection of cognitive impairment can prevent further decline and the importance of medications and lifestyle changes to keep our brains healthy.

The Study: Simple Memory Test

The study, published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, found that people’s performance during the memory test could expose subtle signs of early cognitive impairment that are indicative of future memory issues. The memory test is known as the Stages of Objective Memory Impairment (SOMI) system, and it has been used for decades. Impaired performance on these tests has been linked to mild cognitive impairment and dementia.

The researchers recruited 969 people, with an average age of 69, who had normal cognition at the start of the study. All participants completed a simple memory test that asked them to identify and recall items belonging to various categories. The participants were split up into five groups that were based on their test scores and were tracked for up to 10 years.

The Results

The researchers found that 47% of the group had no memory problems, while 35% were in stage one, and 13% were in stage two, which meant they experienced some difficulty remembering information, and based on prediction models, may develop dementia within five to eight years. About 5% of the group were in stages three and four, meaning they had trouble recalling all of the items, even when hints were given. Stage three and four are believed to precede dementia by one to three years.

Out of the entire group, 234 people, or 24%, developed cognitive decline by the end of the study period. Compared to the stage zero group, those in stages one and two were twice as likely to develop impairment. The participants in groups three and four were three times as likely to have cognitive impairment. Based on their calculations, the researchers estimated that 72% of people in stage three and four, 57% in stage two, and 21% in stage one would develop cognitive impairment after 10 years.

What Does This Mean?

The findings of the study support the use of the SOMI system to predict future risk of cognitive impairment. Given the study’s findings, future prevention-focused Alzheimer’s disease drug trials could selectively screen for high-risk individuals with high SOMI scores. Those at risk could also be counseled to adopt interventions, like medications and healthy lifestyle modifications, to combat further decline.

“Episodic memory storage loss is one of the core clinical features of Alzheimer’s disease, and its presence may suggest the presence of underlying neuropathological changes like the progressive accumulation of amyloid and tau proteins in the brain,” says Dr. Irina Skylar-Scott, a cognitive and behavioral neurologist at a Stanford Health Care and clinical assistant professor at Stanford University.

Early Detection of Cognitive Impairment

Early detection of cognitive impairment, especially with Alzheimer’s disease, can help people combat long-term memory issues. It’s difficult to predict who will experience future cognitive decline — a concerning reality when rates of cognitive decline are increasing rapidly. Past research has found that tests evaluating episodic memory (events, word lists, and stories), semantic memory (factual information), attention, and executive function (planning and decision-making) are all useful in detecting early signs of cognitive impairment.

Regular cognitive assessments, especially for those at risk, can help in early detection and intervention. This can include lifestyle changes, such as a healthy diet and exercise, and medication management. Medications that target Alzheimer’s disease, such as cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine, may help slow down cognitive decline and improve memory and thinking in some people.

In addition to medication and lifestyle changes, cognitive rehabilitation may also be helpful for those experiencing cognitive impairment. Cognitive rehabilitation aims to improve cognitive function and quality of life through specific exercises and activities. This can include memory training, problem-solving exercises, and cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Bottom Line

Dementia is a devastating condition that affects millions of people worldwide. While there is no cure, early detection of cognitive impairment, especially with Alzheimer’s disease, can help people combat long-term memory issues. The recent study that found a simple memory test may be able to predict future cognitive decline is a promising development in early detection and prevention efforts. Regular cognitive assessments, medication management, lifestyle changes, and cognitive rehabilitation may all be helpful interventions for those experiencing cognitive impairment.