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How a 15-Minute Test Shows Promise for Early Alzheimer’s Detection

by Jose Calvo

Growing concerns over the aging population plague the national health systems around the world, focused mainly on the increasing number of individual patients suffering from cognitive impairment.

Within the UK, the total population with a diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s is predicted to reach more than 1 million, up from the current count of 800,000 today. Cognitive issues require a certain level of care, both from medical professionals and social caregivers, creating a substantial need for additional funding within the health care system. In an effort to stave off the financial burden of a greater number of patients entering the health care system, governments alongside research organizations are working to find solutions aimed at detecting the early signs of cognitive impairment sooner.

SAGE shows Promise

A group of medical researchers at the Ohio State University designed one such solution in 2014 – the Self-administered Gerocognitive Examination, known as SAGE. The cognitive function test is intended to provide a simple way to detect early signs of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, as an alternative or supplement to comprehensive cognitive testing done within a doctor’s office. SAGE comes in the form of a pen and paper questionnaire that can be completed at an individual’s home, in as little as 15 minutes for most. The 12-question test prompts individuals to complete simple tasks that require cognitive functioning, such as drawing a picture of a specific object, or creating a list of items in another room of the house. For those who incorrectly answer more than half of the prompts, a doctor’s visit is encouraged to test further for dementia and Alzheimer’s.

While the SAGE test is not a tool for diagnosing cognitive impairment in older patients, it is a promising method to observe early signs of mental decline, sans specialized medical equipment or a full doctor’s observation. Initial research showed that in a study of 1,000 participants aged 50 and over, 28 per cent of participants showed signs of cognitive impairment, falling closely in line with more in-depth testing performed on the same individuals.

Additional research is necessary to determine how accurate test results are among potential patients, but as it stands today, SAGE offers hope to patients, caregivers and the medical community. Dr. Douglas Scharre, the lead developer of SAGE, explains, “If we catch this cognitive change really early, then we can start potential treatments much earlier than without this test.” Early detection offers part of the solution to the financial woes faced by national health care systems, and the concern over quality of care provided to dementia and Alzheimer’s patients.

A Focus on Prevention

Routine doctor visits don’t always result in cognitive impairment diagnoses, as neurological changes can be difficult to spot without testing. SAGE offers early detection of these changes with its at-home testing, helping to shift the discussion toward prevention – a dire need for struggling health care systems and the caregivers and medical professionals in tow. Taking the UK as an example, patients suffering from cognitive functioning issues that require long-term medical care make up one in every six individuals over the age of 85.

As the population ages faster than the national health system of the country can keep pace, patients and their families stand to bear the emotional and financial cost. A representative from a leading team of medical negligence solicitors, Patient Claim Line, who works with elder care claims on a daily basis explains that increased pressure on the health care system of the UK from a growing patient population has the potential to lead to disastrous results for dementia and Alzheimer’s sufferers. Unless a focus is placed on the prevention of these diseases, rather than ongoing treatment after the fact, patients and those who care for them stand to experience devastating consequences in terms of quality of care and ultimately, quality of life.

SAGE is far from a total answer to the UK health care system’s instability as it relates to an aging population, but the at-home test does offer up a potential solution for early detection. Arming individuals with the ability to observe and monitor the early onset of cognitive issues, before one’s condition requires long-term, daily care from both the medical and social sectors, is an integral factor in safeguarding the future of the NHS as the population continues to age.