There is currently no cure for dementia, but recognising the early signs and symptoms is still very important. We explore why spotting the early signs matters for everyone affected by dementia and why we support 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 treatments that can stop diseases like Alzheimer's disease from progressing aren’t available in the UK yet.
However, with clinical trials now showing positive results, an early and accurate diagnosis will be important to find those that are eligible for disease modifying treatments when they are available.
It’s important to also 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.
Also, even though 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 our research in dementia diagnoses tells us
Exciting research from the United States tested 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.'
Recent research from the USA has improved the accuracy of blood tests for Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh developed a blood test that detects a specific form of tau that only comes from the brain. The test can detect Alzheimer’s disease with an accuracy of 86-99%.
Another group at the University of Washington, USA has developed a way of detecting a toxic form of amyloid in the blood, which can detect Alzheimer’s disease with 98% accuracy.
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 Alzheimer's disease before symptoms appear
You may have heard that a number of trials testing new treatments for Alzheimer's disease have failed. We believe this might be because we are treating people once the condition has progressed too far.
Research funded by Alzheimer's Society showed that 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.
In fact, recent trials testing drugs in people with early Alzheimer’s disease are having positive results.
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.
3 novel ways to diagnose dementia in the early stages
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 £3.2m of research across the UK to find a way to identify people with dementia as early as possible using a number of innovative techniques:
- Professor Geoff Parker at UCL is leading work to develop a faster way of carrying out accurate MRI scans to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease so they are more cost effective than CT scans which are currently cheaper but less detailed.
- Dr Dennis Chan and his team at the University of Cambridge are exploring how we could use virtual reality technology alongside other clinical tests to assess the memory and behaviour of people at risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
- In another project, Dr Timothy Rittman is looking to see if a brain scanning technique that measures the connections between different brain areas can be used to detect rarer types of dementia.
Progress we've made in dementia diagnosis
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 rose from 33% in 2012 to 66% in 2017 .’
This has now dropped to 62.5 in December 2022, after a drop during the covid-19 pandemic. We are working hard to encourage the Government to address this issue.
The importance of dementia research
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.
Support dementia research today
Your support could fund life changing dementia research.
This post was first published in March 2020 and most recently updated in February 2023.