Early detection is critical for successfully treating Alzheimer’s and dementia, but what if identifying the first noticeable symptoms is already too late for adequate treatment? An emerging field of research is looking for clues outside of traditional medical diagnosis to accelerate dementia diagnosis and treatment. What are they looking for? Everyday behavior like poor driving or missed bill payments.
Sayeh Bayat is the lead author of a study exploring the potential telltale signs of dementia present years or even decades before traditional symptoms present themselves. She explains to The New York Times how many Alzheimer’s treatment trials have failed because even administering the drugs early after detection is still too late for them to be effective. Her team is looking for “preclinical” signs of Alzheimer’s disease to get them into testing and treatment studies to prevent the onset of the disease altogether.
Traditional dementia and Alzheimer’s detection involves genetic testing, spinal taps or PET scans, and family history research, but preclinical symptom detection looks like putting a GPS device in someone’s car to monitor driving behavior or tracking reported warning signs from relatives like missed credit card payments.
This research is motivated by studies like this one that found that patients who eventually received an Alzheimer’s diagnosis were significantly more likely to have delinquent credit card payments and subpar credit scores than their peers even years before a formal diagnosis.
Working from these preliminary findings, researchers at the Washington University conducted a study that further cements these results. They enrolled 139 individuals, 75 of which were deemed cognitively normal and 64 of whom were identified to have preclinical Alzheimer’s by spinal taps. Tracking all the patients’ driving patterns for a year, they found that driving behaviors accurately predicted the presence of preclinical Alzheimer’s 88 percent of the time.
These very early micro alerts to the potential presence of dementia can not only get these patients into a treatment plan as early as possible, but it can also help families prepare for life managing dementia. Research has shown that patients identified as high risk for dementia are more likely to adjust their lifestyle habits for a healthier future, update their wills, draft advance directives, and move closer to a potential caretaker.
These early detection methods are potentially lifesaving for patients, but they can also make our streets safer, reduce the risk of financial exploitation of dementia patients, and help families prepare to manage the challenge of a dementia diagnosis.