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Dementia: The ‘subtle’ symptoms that can show up ’18 years’ before a diagnosis – study

Dr Hilary issues warning about missed dementia diagnoses

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Dementia is a general term for clusters of symptoms associated with progressive brain decline. Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for dementia but research has made major breakthroughs in spotting it early. This is crucial because early intervention buys precious time to bolster the brain’s defences against the worst effects of brain decline.

Picking up on the symptoms years ahead of a diagnosis is an abiding focus of research.

A study of over 2,000 people showed a test of memory and thinking can reveal differences in people who go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease (which makes up the majority of dementia cases) up to 18 years before diagnosis.

Based on tests completed 13 to 18 years before the study ended, a lower score in a cognitive test was associated with an 85 percent greater risk of future dementia.

This suggests that the development of Alzheimer’s disease may begin many years earlier than expected before symptoms are recognised.

“Dementia often causes changes in the brain years before the symptoms become apparent,” said doctor Doug Brown, Director of Research and Development at Alzheimer’s Society.

“This study shows that there may be subtle indications of Alzheimer’s disease in thinking and memory as many as 18 years before a formal diagnosis could take place.”

He continued: “This could mean there is a long window of opportunity for treatment in which we could one day halt or slow dementia.

“Although these tests cannot accurately predict who will develop dementia, they could potentially be used to identify people at higher risk.”

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How to reduce your risk

Although getting older is the biggest risk factor for dementia, evidence shows there are things you can do to help reduce your own risk.

These include keeping active, eating healthily and exercising your mind.

Doing regular physical activity is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of dementia.

As the Alzheimer’s Society (AS) explains, it’s good for your heart, circulation, weight and mental wellbeing.

It’s important to find a way of exercising that works for you.

“You might find it helpful to start off with a small amount of activity and build it up gradually,” notes the AS.

“Even 10 minutes at a time is good for you and try to avoid sitting down for too long.”

Research suggests that diet can influence your risk of developing dementia.

The MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet was created by researchers at Rush University in Chicago, to help prevent dementia and slow age-related loss of brain function.

It’s a combination of two diets already known to reduce risk of heart and circulatory disease:

  • The Mediterranean diet (based on whole grains, fish, pulses, fruits and vegetables)
  • The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. The DASH diet is designed to control blood pressure – a risk factor for heart and circulatory diseases and dementia. It’s similar to the Mediterranean diet, but with a greater emphasis on reducing your salt intake.

Both diets are backed by lots of research showing they can help your heart health, and some evidence to suggest they can contribute to lower levels of mental decline.

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