Tests Of Mental Skills May Predict Dementia

January 08, 1997

UNIVERSITY PARK, Penn. -- A new study suggests that a series of fairly simple cognitive tests can predict which older adults will develop Alzheimer's disease or other dementia.

Those who scored poorly on the tests were 11 times more likely to show symptoms of dementia two years later than were their healthy counterparts.

"We're able to show that for the 'oldest old' -- those age 85 and older -- mild cognitive problems are reliable early markers of dementia," says Steven H. Zarit, Penn State professor of human development and a co-investigator on the project.

The tests can help distinguish between ordinary forgetfulness and the beginning of more serious, disabling memory loss, according to Zarit.

"One of the most difficult challenges is to differentiate benign memory problems -- which all of us have at every age -- from symptoms that herald the onset of decline," he says. "Sometimes people are concerned about their memory in late life, when in fact they don't have a problem. But sometimes, where there's smoke, there's fire."

The research was conducted by Boo Johannson of the University College of Health Sciences in Jonkoping, Sweden, and by Zarit, who is a faculty member in Penn State's College of Health and Human Development. Results are published in the January issue of the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

The study took place in Sweden, a country that has a larger proportion of people over age 85 than the United States does.

"Sweden's age distribution looks like the United States will in 10 to 20 years," Zarit says.

The study involved 324 people between the ages of 84 and 90. Most of the subjects -- 61 percent -- lived in ordinary housing, while 28 percent were in assisted-living arrangements and 12 percent were in nursing homes or similar institutions.

Registered nurses examined the participants four times over a six-year period, collecting data on health, functional abilities, mood, and related measures. They also gave each participant five tests of mental skills: The researchers found that test scores not only could predict who would become impaired, but also who was likely to die in the next two to four years. Participants who scored poorly on the tests at the beginning of the study were three times more likely to die within the next two years (and five times more likely to die in the next four years) than the others were.

"There's speculation in the gerontology field that there may be a process separate from dementia, called terminal decline," Zarit explains. "The body goes through a general deterioration of its systems, and that's accompanied by increased cognitive difficulties.

"Some people think of it as running out of genetic programming for life. It's the body system wearing out, rather than a specific disease like cancer, heart disease, or Alzheimer's disease."

Having early warning about the approach of dementia -- or even death -- can give physicians, psychologists, social workers and other clinicians an important tool in working with older adults, Zarit says. The findings also give the elderly themselves time to prepare.

"People can make sure their legal and financial matters are in order -- for example, to give someone power of attorney," he says. "They also should think about where they want to live. For instance, if you're age 80 and you want to move to a retirement community, one of the questions to ask is whether they have programs to support you if you become cognitively impaired."

Almost a third of the subjects in Zarit's study already had some dementia (as measured by the American Psychiatric Association's criteria for the disorder) when the study began. That figure is consistent with what other studies have found, according to Zarit.

"Dementia is a big part of the picture for people over 85," he says, adding that the problem will grow as the population ages. "About 2-1/2 percent of the U.S. population is over 80. That's going to rise very quickly to 4 percent. That's a large growth, and in some ways we're totally unprepared."It's a group who will include a lot of competent, active people, but there are a lot of people with impaired memory who are going to need some help," he says.

Penn State

Related Dementia Articles from Brightsurf:

The danger of Z-drugs for dementia patients
Strong sleeping pills known as 'Z-drugs' are linked with an increased risk of falls, fractures and stroke among people with dementia, according to new research.

The long road to dementia
Alzheimer's disease develops over decades. It begins with a fatal chain reaction in which masses of misfolded beta-amyloid proteins are produced that in the end literally flood the brain.

Why people with dementia go missing
People with dementia are more likely to go missing in areas where road networks are dense, complicated and disordered - according to new research from the University of East Anglia.

PTSD may double risk of dementia
People who have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are up to twice as likely to develop dementia later in life, according to a new study by UCL researchers, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Dementia education
School-based dementia education could deliver much needed empathy and understanding for older generations as new research from the University of South Australia shows it can significantly improve dementia knowledge and awareness among younger generations.

Building dementia friendly churches
A project to help church communities become more 'dementia friendly' has had a significant impact across the country.

A "feeling" for dementia?
A research team led by the DZNE concludes that personal perception can be an important indicator for the early detection of Alzheimer's disease.

New biomarker for dementia diagnosis
Medical researchers in the UK and Australia have identified a new marker which could support the search for novel preventative and therapeutic treatments for dementia.

Digital solutions for dementia care
Telehealth delivery of dementia care in the home can be as effective as face-to-face home visit services if carers and recipients take advantage of the technologies available, Australian researchers say.

Despite a marked reduction in the prevalence of dementia, the number of people with dementia is set to double by 2050 according to new Alzheimer Europe report
Today, at a European Parliament lunch debate, Alzheimer Europe launched a new report presenting the findings of its collaborative analysis of recent prevalence studies and setting out updated prevalence rates for dementia in Europe.

Read More: Dementia News and Dementia Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.