There is currently no cure for dementia, so why is early diagnosis so important? We explore why it matters for everyone affected by dementia and why we are supporting research to improve diagnosis.
Headlines like ‘A simple test to diagnose dementia’ or ‘New blood test improves diagnosis of dementia’ appear in the media every other day.
You could be forgiven for thinking, ‘why is diagnosis so important?’ Especially as we don’t have treatments that can stop the condition progressing.
It’s important to remember there are lots of ways we can support people to live well with dementia, even in the absence of drugs to slow the progression.
The truth is, diagnosis goes hand-in-hand with understanding the causes of dementia and developing new treatments. Diagnosis rates are improving across the UK, but there are still many people living in limbo with symptoms they don’t fully understand.
Sadly, the tests used to diagnose people today are not always accurate and it can take months or even years to get the right diagnosis.
What's the latest research in dementia diagnoses?
Exciting research from the United States trialled a blood test in 158 people. It was 94 per cent accurate in identifying who would go on to get Alzheimer's disease. This was a huge breakthrough and proceeded to go through further testing with a larger group of people.
A blood test that detects a form of the protein tau, showed early signs that it might be used to differentiate between Alzheimer's disease and frontotemporal dementia (FTD).
It is early days for this test, but shows again how fast this area of research is moving.
Fiona Carragher, Chief Policy and Research Officer at Alzheimer’s Society, said:
'A quick and easy blood test that can differentiate between Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal dementia or mild cognitive impairment would be an invaluable tool revolutionising the search for new treatments.'
A diagnosis opens the door to emotional, practical, legal and financial advice and support.
It also gives a person access to treatments to manage their symptoms and care. A diagnosis can give people affected by dementia the opportunity to plan for the future and make practical arrangements.
Importantly, a diagnosis helps a person with dementia understand what is happening to them and how to manage and live well with their condition.
Identifying people before symptoms
You may have heard recently that a number of trials testing new treatments for dementia have failed. We believe this might be because we are treating people once the condition has progressed too far.
Researchers think changes in the brain associated with dementia may begin up to fifteen years before symptoms begin. If we can detect people who will go on to develop dementia and enter them into trials testing new treatments at the very earliest stages, treatments might be more effective.
There is a second reason early diagnosis is important in bringing new treatments to the people who need them the most. Today we don’t fully understand what may trigger the changes in the brain that ultimately will cause dementia. If we could identify people who will go on to develop dementia at this very early stage we may be able to understand more about what triggers these changes.
Ultimately, this could help us develop new treatments that prevent these changes from happening.
5 novel ways to diagnose dementia
Whilst we have made considerable progress towards earlier diagnosis , we know that there is still much more to do. Alzheimer’s Society is supporting over £3.7m of research across the UK to find a way to identify people with dementia as early as possible using a number of innovative techniques:
- Our researchers are developing a simple blood test to identify people who will go on to develop familial Alzheimer’s disease.
- A research team at Imperial College London are using cutting-edge scanning and artificial intelligence technique to understand how the proteins tau and amyloid—hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease—affect nerve cells in the brain.
- Our researchers at the University of Cambridge are exploring how we could use virtual reality technology alongside other clinical tests to assess memory and behaviour of people at risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
- We are supporting several studies to understand how we can accurately use brain scans to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease, Frontotemporal dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies before symptoms begin.
- We are supporting ‘GameChanger‘, a project led by researchers at the University of Oxford that is using smartphone technology to help them understand which changes to our memory and thinking are part of healthy ageing and which are early signs of dementia.
Progress we've made
Alzheimer’s Society has been funding research to improve diagnosis for over 30 years. Our researchers at University College London have used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to show how the brain shrinks with dementia. This is now recommended in NICE clinical guidelines for the diagnosis of dementia. Other work at Newcastle University has shown how imaging techniques can help differentiate between Alzheimer’s disease and Lewy Body dementia, which is important to guide management of the disease.
We have also worked to support GPs to make diagnoses. Research has shown GP education and decision support helped GPs to diagnose dementia. This supported our ‘Worried about Your Memory campaign’ which encourages the public to visit their GP if they are concerned about their memory.
‘Since the start of this work in 2012, the national recorded diagnosis rate has risen from has 33% in 2012 to 66% in 2017 .’
Research will beat dementia. Alzheimer’s Society is committed to supporting research to improve care for today and develop a cure for tomorrow. We must find a way to improve diagnosis and support the development of new treatments in parallel so we can maximise the chances that these new treatments will slow down or even stop the progression of dementia.
What research are we funding?
We are investing £10 million a year into dementia research. We fund a variety of dementia research projects and initiatives across the UK to help improve care, understand causes and work towards a cure.
This post was updated and republished in March 2020.