New tool to test Alzheimer's, dementia risks

April 22, 2010 3:10:34 PM PDT
Millions of Americans suffer from Alzheimer's disease and age-related dementia. Experts say early detection is crucial because brain deterioration can sometimes be slowed. Now, there is a new tool to help people assess their own brain functions. It is a simple four-page test, and it is freely available and can be downloaded by anyone. However, this does not take the place of medical evaluation. It is merely a tool that can help people understand that it may be time for serious examination of cognitive abilities.

The test has been evaluated and was published in the current issue of the journal Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders.

Dr. Don Bowers has been a dentist, a professor and an editor of a journal. When he retired, he continued writing. Then one day, as he researched an article, he made a startling discovery.

"I came to find out that I had already written this thing," he said. "And you know, that really scared me."

Dr. Bowers was diagnosed with the early signs of Alzheimer's disease, but only after complex tests like a MRIs and a spinal tap.

The tests confirmed what a simple written exam may have hinted at long ago.

Dr. Douglas Scharre developed the test at Ohio State University Medical Center. It took him years to design what he says is a very straightforward test.

Dr. Scharre wanted to evaluate every part of a patient's brain, from language to memory to problem solving. Freely available, the test can be used by any doctor anywhere.

"It allows us to identify people at an earlier stage," Dr. Scharre said. "Right now, we have great medications for Alzheimer's disease, but they work best if they're started earlier."

There is no treatment to slow or stop the deterioration of brain cells in Alzheimer's. The Alzheimer's Disease Association says the five approved medications "temporarily slow the worsening of symptoms for about 6 to 12 months on average, for about half of the individuals who take them."

But active medical management of Alzheimer's can significantly improve quality of life through all stages of the the disease.

By developing the new test, called SAGE, for Self-Administered Gerocognitive Examination, Dr. Scharre hopes to spot issues much earlier and treat patients much more effectively.

"The doctor might suggest it or give it to the patient if they notice something, or maybe a family member brings this up and notices there's been some memory or thinking problems," Dr. Scharre said.

Mild thinking or memory issues can be part of normal ageing or life stresses, but if they are interfering in one's life, then a discussion and testing by a professional might be a useful step. Dr. Scharre says the test won't identify every single person with cognitive issues, but it can signal in about 80 percent of people who do have them.

And the test is amazingly simple. To download the test and get instructions on scoring, visit