Is It Dementia Or Normal Aging? Now There's A Scale To Figure It Out

03/19/2015 12:39 pm ET | Updated Mar 19, 2015
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Beneath the ubiquitous memory-loss jokes that midlifers make, there is a deep concern and fear of dementia. Now, Mayo Clinic researchers have developed a new scoring system to help determine who among the elderly are at higher risk of developing the memory and thinking problems that can lead to dementia.

The study has been published in the online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

The goal of the study, said its authors in a press release, was to identify the people who are at the highest risk for dementia as early as possible. People with mild cognitive impairment, known as MCI, are at a greater risk of developing dementia, and early intervention provides a wider window for preventative measures.

The study picked 1,449 Minnesotans between the ages of 70 and 89 who were not experiencing memory and thinking problems. During the almost five-year study, 401 of them -- nearly a third -- developed MCI. The scoring system considered factors such as the highest level of education attained, medications taken regularly, and whether the subjects had a history of stroke, diabetes or smoking. Researchers measured thinking abilities, symptoms of depression and anxiety, and slow gait. Factors were assigned a score based on how much they contributed to the risk of developing thinking problems. For example, being diagnosed with diabetes before age 75 increased the risk score by 14 points, while having 12 or fewer years of education increased the risk by two points, according to the press release.

The APOE gene, which previously has been linked to a higher risk of dementia, was determined in the study to be only a moderate risk factor.

"This risk scale provides an inexpensive and easy way for doctors to identify people who should be referred to more advanced testing for memory issues or may be better candidates for clinical trials," said one of the authors of the study, Ronald Petersen.

Predicting who will experience dementia in later life has been a subject of keen interest as baby boomers creep up in age. The National Institutes of Health reports that most studies suggest that drinking large amounts of alcohol increases the risk of dementia, while drinking a moderate amount may be protective. Other risk factors include high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad” cholesterol). People with diabetes appear to have a higher risk for dementia, although the evidence for this association is modest, said the NIH. Poorly controlled diabetes, however, is a well-proven risk factor for stroke and cardiovascular disease-related events, which in turn increase the risk for vascular dementia.

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