A 5-Part Guide to Early Dementia Detection – Part 3: Early Detection Methods

Welcome to Part 3 of our 5-Part Guide to Early Dementia Detection. So far, we have covered the definition and a few statistics associated with early detection, along with some of the many benefits that it can provide. Today, we turn our attention to the actual methods used to achieve the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.

As it currently stands, cognitive evaluations are the only way to detect the early signs of dementia. There has, however, been some notable progress in using positron emission tomography (PET) scans in the detection of Alzheimer’s disease. Unfortunately, the PET scanning method is largely inaccessible to the general public due to costs and ongoing research requirements. In stark contrast, cognitive tests address multiple forms of dementia, are widely available, and may, in fact, be more accessible than most people realize.

Early Detection Potential With PET Scanning

Image via Wikimedia Commons

The “holy grail” of early dementia detection research is the identification of reliable biomarkers (any measurable substance in the body) that can be used to diagnose dementia before any cognitive symptoms appear. The most obvious target as a potential biomarker for Alzheimer’s disease is the protein known as beta-amyloid. In the brains of people with Alzheimer’s, beta-amyloid clumps into abnormal deposits called plaques. These plaques are thought to be a major source of the damage associated with the condition. While the goal of detecting the protein before cognitive symptoms have appeared has yet to be achieved, PET scanning techniques may be on the verge of a breakthrough.

Without introducing too much scientific jargon, PET scans can be understood as a process that takes images of substances in the body that have been “tagged” with a chemical. Recently, researchers have had success for the first time in using PET to detect beta-amyloid fairly early in the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. However, some cognitive symptoms tend to be already present when the detection process is effective, so there is some way to go before PET scanning can be a truly effective early detection tool. Still, these findings lay the groundwork for future improvements using beta-amyloid as a biomarker.

Early Detection Using Cognitive Evaluations

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Taking part in regular cognitive evaluations is currently the only way to detect the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. These tests consist of relatively simple questions and tasks that are specifically designed to detect impairments in mental processes that are most commonly impacted in the earliest stages of dementia (memory is a prime example). The results need to be professionally assessed, so most cognitive evaluations take place during medical appointments. However, this requirement can be a problem for the many people who deal with access barriers, like physical disabilities or a lack of professional services in their area.

The BrainTest® app is a great cognitive evaluation option for everyone, but especially for those who face access barriers to attending professional appointments. Based on the SAGE test, which is used in medical settings, BrainTest® is an at-home tool that provides instant access to professional cognitive assessments. Users can complete the test on a compatible touchscreen device in about 15 minutes and the results are explained by a professional assessor in a video that is made available within three days of testing.

Up Next: Recent Research Findings

So far, we have discussed the definition of early dementia detection, associated benefits, and the methods used to do so. In Part 4 of our 5-part guide, we will explore some of the many research findings that have shaped our understanding of these concepts, as well as current efforts that could lead to significant improvements in the near future (like the PET scan method, though it will not be covered again there, since we have already discussed it here).

Steven Pace writes extensively in the fields of neuroscience, mental health, and spirituality. He is an experienced academic writer and researcher from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada, having obtained his BSc. (Psychology Major) from Cape Breton University in 2010. Steven takes pride in being able to assist others in navigating topics concerning the human mind.

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