Dementia is a syndrome that can be caused by various progressive mental disorders. It can affect memory, cognitive health, behavior and the patient’s ability to perform basic everyday tasks.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. While dementia mainly affects seniors, who are 65 and older, there is a growing awareness of cases affecting younger people too. After 65, the chances of developing dementia doubles every five years.
Dementia is one of the biggest global health challenges. In fact, it is as big as the fight against cancer, HIV, and heart-related diseases. Dementia is gradually becoming the leading cause of death.
Apart from the physical challenges, dementia imposes a big emotional and financial cost, both to the patient and the caregiver. According to a research by Alzheimer’s Disease International, an estimated 46.8 million people were diagnosed with dementia, worldwide.
The number will rise to 50 million people at the end of 2017. Dementia patients will double every 20 years, reaching 75 million in 2030 and 131.5 million in 2050.
These statistics are alarming and very soon dementia will, directly or indirectly, affect every one of us. This is why we need to wake up to what is fast becoming one of the greatest menace for patients, families, caregivers and health systems.
Many new dementia programs are being launched worldwide, that are trying to deliver sustained improvements in the health care sector. These programs aim to raise awareness and create dementia-friendly communities. While reports show a worldwide increase in dementia research and better quality of dementia care, we still have a long way to go.
There has been some major progress in dementia research. Physicians have become better at identifying and treating people with dementia and have responsibly reduced prescription of antipsychotic drugs.
But even today, less than 50% of the people with dementia receive a proper diagnosis. To increase awareness, it is crucial to stay abreast with the latest developments in the field of dementia. Here are some groundbreaking advancements that can help with timely diagnosis and improve patient care;
1- Blood-based amyloid biomarker test
According to a research conducted by doctors at Washington University School of Medicine, a simple blood test can investigate amyloid deposition in the brain. Currently, the only way to assess the presence of amyloid-beta plaques is through an invasive spinal tap or through expensive PET scans.
A blood-based amyloid biomarker test can offer clues about the extent and progression of dementia in the patient’s brain. Dr. James Pickett, head of research at Alzheimer’s Society said, “People with amyloid plaques in their brain may be at a risk of developing Alzheimer’s in the near future. This kind of clinical trials are a good way to detect amyloid in the blood. A blood-based amyloid biomarker test is a quick and affordable way to identify people who are susceptible to dementia in older age, and are also less invasive and expensive than traditional methods.”
2- Magnetoencephalography or MEG
Researchers in New Mexico and Croatia have invented a latest and non-invasive brain scanning technique known as magnetoencephalography, or MEG. It can discover the early biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease, enabling doctors to diagnose dementia at its early stage so that it can be treated effectively.
Alzheimer’s is a disease that causes changes in the brain a decade before patients actually experience visible symptoms, like memory loss or confusion. This is why researchers all over the world are constantly trying to discover innovative ways to identify people who are at the early stage of dementia. Early detection can delay and even prevent the onset of some dementia symptoms. Early diagnosis can also improve patient’s life quality.
According to Dr. Doug Brown, Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Society,: “Magnetoencephalography or MEG is a non-invasive technique that can measure brain activity in response to various types of sounds. A detailed analysis of the report can detect earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease, in the human brain. However, this study is at a very early stage to draw any firm conclusions. The study has a very small number of participants, narrow selection criteria and a lack of long-term data due to which we can’t determine its accuracy.”
3- Sleep apnea disorder
Many new researches are finding increasing links between disordered breathing during sleep, or sleep apnea, and the accumulation of certain biomarkers that lead to Alzheimer’s disease.
As reported at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2017 (AAIC 2017) in London, these findings highlight the fact that sleep-disordered breathing is a treatable factor that can lower the risk of dementia and also lower its progression.
A study was carried out by researchers at Wheaton College, Illinois, where the sleep patterns of participants were observed to characterize potential effects of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) on the brain. It was concluded that sleep apnea can increase amyloid plaques in the brain, hence leading to mild cognitive impairment and eventually, Alzheimer’s disease.
4- Gene mutation
According to a research by Alzheimer’s Society, gene mutation may increase memory loss in Alzheimer’s disease. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein that is part of a larger group of proteins called neurotrophins, which help nerve cells grow and survive.
In this study, researchers observed 1,023 people who were around an average age of 55. They were observed for 13 years and most of these participants were at the risk of dementia, but still healthy.
Their blood samples were tested for gene mutation. 32% of the participants had the gene mutation, and they lost their memory and cognitive skills more rapidly compared to the rest.
Dr. Doug Brown, Director of Research and Development at Alzheimer’s Society, said: “This latest research suggests that people who have a certain BDNF gene experience a faster decline in memory and cognitive skills. More than a third of the world’s population have this version of the gene, which is thought to decrease the growth of new brain cells.”
People can also take a genetic test that can inform you if you are at a higher risk of developing dementia at later stages of life.
Alzheimer’s Society is working hard towards creating ‘centers of excellence’ for people who are affected by dementia. A huge monetary investment has been made in dementia care research which will improve the lives of people with the disease.
These centers will focus on all key areas within dementia care research over the span of the next 5 years. They are located at the Universities of Newcastle and Exeter and University College London.
Researchers here are constantly trying to focus on ways to improve patients’ quality of life, provide access to post-diagnostic support, and training to home care workers. These interventions can make a life-changing impact on people suffering from dementia and their loved ones.
We need similar research and care centers all over the world to increase awareness about the challenges which dementia patients and their families have to face. It rings truer especially now that there is a lot of focus on funding and development of the social health sector.
What were some of the earliest symptoms of dementia you observed in a loved one?