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Dementia: Expert discusses the signs and symptoms

Dementia is a general term for a cluster of symptoms associated with brain decline. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia in the UK. Memory loss and lapses in judgement are some of the early signs of Alzheimer’s. There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s but identifying its emergence as early as possible could help to forestall it.

Research published in the journal Brain today energises this effort.

A team of scientists at UCL have found that blood tests measuring the hallmark Alzheimer’s protein – b-amyloid (amyloid) – could drastically reduce the cost of clinical trials and potentially accelerate attempts to treat the disease earlier.

To gather their findings, the UCL team led by Prof Jonathan Schott worked with a unique group of over 400 volunteers, recruited from the Medical Research Council National Survey of Health and Development (NSHD).

The British cohort were all born in the same week in 1946 and did not have dementia.

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They had amyloid PET scans and blood tests as part of the Alzheimer’s Research UK-funded Insight 46 study.

A PET scan is an imaging test that helps reveal how your tissues and organs are functioning.

A PET scanner can be used to reveal the extent of amyloid build up in a person’s brain but they are costly and require specialist facilities.

The researchers compared three different ways of measuring proteins of interest in the blood and compared the results of the blood tests to those from the PET scans.

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In this group of cognitively healthy individuals around the age of 70, approximately one in five (18 percent) had evidence of a significant build-up of brain amyloid – in a similar pattern to patients with Alzheimer’s dementia.

The best performing blood test was able to identify those individuals with high levels of amyloid with about 85 percent accuracy.

Using blood tests to screen for amyloid would reduce the requirement for PET scans by roughly half.

Prof Jonathan Schott, lead author of the study from University College London said: “Current evidence suggests that the brain changes leading to Alzheimer’s disease start many years before symptoms. Identifying individuals at risk opens a window of opportunity to offer treatments to prevent the onset of cognitive decline.

“Our results – from a sample of individuals from across mainland Britain who were all born in the same week in 1946 – show that blood tests may be a useful means of identifying individuals who are in the earliest stages of the disease.”

Prof Jonathan Schott added: “In the short term, allied dealers this has implications for clinical trials of new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease. Blood tests could allow for rapid screening, and reduction of the numbers who would need more expensive PET scans before entering a study.

“This would considerably reduce the costs and time it takes to run clinical trials, and will hopefully accelerate the development of new treatments.”

Dr Ashvini Keshavan, first author on the study, said: “In due course blood tests have the potential to revolutionise how we diagnose Alzheimer’s disease, allowing access to better diagnostic tests in the community, and particularly in settings where more expensive PET scans and lumbar puncture tests are not currently available thus making access to any new treatments and support more equitable”.

Dr Rosa Sancho, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, added: “While these blood tests aren’t yet available in the clinic to aid diagnose, reducing the number of people who would need to be recruited and go through an expensive scan would accelerate clinical trials with greater cost savings.”

Key lifestyle tips to reduce risk of Alzheimer’s

Although it’s still unknown what triggers Alzheimer’s disease, several factors are known to increase your risk of developing the condition.

Research shows that several lifestyle factors and conditions associated with cardiovascular disease can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

These include:

  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol.

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