Early diagnosis of memory loss may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease has been predicted as the next global public health crisis facing the modern world. In fact, approximately 5.1 million people in the U.S. are said to suffer from Alzheimer’s, and even more are affected worldwide. As we age, the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease continues to rise, and with the growing senior population, these numbers are expected to grow exponentially. But few people are aware that if you catch memory loss issues early enough, there’s a lot you can do to prevent symptoms from worsening.

How Alzheimer’s affects the brain

Alzheimer’s disease is a condition that results from abnormal protein in the brain. These protein clumps, called beta-amyloid plaques stick to brain cells, preventing them from transmitting normal nerve impulses to one another. There is also an overproduction of another protein in the brain called “tau.”  Tau protein functions to support the structure of nerve cells. This excess tau ends up forming what is called “tau tangles”, resulting in an interruption of normal nerve connection between neighboring brain cells.

Scientists believe that these hallmark brain changes (amyloid and tau) may begin as many as 20 years (or even earlier) before memory loss or any other notable symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease are present. The affected brain cells end up dying prematurely, causing the brain to shrink in a process called brain “atrophy.”  Normal aging of the brain does involve slight shrinkage, but nerve cells are not damaged as they are in Alzheimer’s patients. In fact, healthy human nerve cells can continually repair themselves and can live over 100 years.

Early diagnosis

It may be surprising to learn that there is currently no 100% accurate method of diagnosing Alzheimer’s in a living person, and it’s even harder to identify those who are at risk of the disease. Expensive clinical imaging and lab tests, such as CT scans, are available and there are also a number of pen and paper tests that people can take, but none of them can give a definitive diagnosis.

Recent research has focused on discovering a blood test that can identify those at risk of Alzheimer’s, but nothing, as yet, has been made available to consumers. In our research, we have used Neurotrack’s Imprint Check-Up and I’ve become a big fan of easy to administer tests like this that, in my opinion, may be the most optimal path toward the future of early detection. The web-based tool measures the function of the hippocampus – the first part of the brain where we see cognitive decline. The Imprint Check-Up tracks and analyzes eye movements of a person who is looking at a series of images. The test measures the type of memory called “declarative memory”, which is accessed when a person needs to recall everyday factors like finding the car keys or recalling a previously set appointment time. This assessment is not a diagnostic tool, but it does enable users to establish a baseline of brain health and then monitor their score over time.

Early intervention

Finding out if you’re at risk of memory loss can be a scary thing. Most people believe there’s nothing you can do to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, so they’re reluctant to discover the state of their cognitive health. According to a 2015 report by the Alzheimer’s Association, many physicians are reluctant to give their patients an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

However, there are a number of benefits to finding out early if you’re at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease:

  1.     You can work with your doctor to address risk factors including vascular disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.
  2.     You can seek treatment for underlying contributing factors such as depression, vitamin deficiencies, sleep disorders and more.
  3.     You can make changes to your diet or exercise regimen, which may slow down the onset of memory loss.
  4.     You can make other lifestyle changes, like getting involved in more socially engaging activities, or playing specifically designed brain games, which may support brain health.
  5.     You can start taking medication that may help to treat a medical condition that increases risk of Alzheimer’s disease, in an effort to delay the onset of the disease.
  6.     You can speak to your doctor and start researching studies for new treatments, many of which are only available to people in the very early stages of Mild Cognitive Impairment or Alzheimer’s disease.
  7.     You can develop a support system and talk to family and friends about the challenging and sensitive issue of memory loss.
  8.     You can start planning for the future when your mental fitness is at its best so that you receive the kind of care you would like.

Discovering you have memory problems and are at risk of Alzheimer’s disease can be very worrying. It’s understanding that many people put off seeking treatment. However, there are many things patients can do to manage the major risk factors of Alzheimer’s disease and reduce the likelihood of symptoms getting worse. So I encourage everyone to get smarter about brain health and do what they can to protect their minds and their bodies from cognitive decline.

Dr. Richard Isaacson
Dr. Richard Isaacson

Associate Professor of Neurology and Director of the Neurology Residency Program at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York Presbyterian Hospital — Dr. Isaacson is Neurotrack's Chief Medical Consultant and serves as the Director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic. His team has worked to compile a wealth of free resources available on the website Alzheimer’s Universe.