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Experts say simple memory tests may be useful in detecting the early signs of dementia. Justin Paget/Getty Images
  • Researchers say a simple memory test may be able to provide early indications of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • In a new study, more than 4,000 participants were asked to remember pictures of images they were shown. The lower scoring groups had higher percentages of people with the presence of beta-amyloid plaque associated with Alzheimer’s.
  • Experts say simple memory tests could be a useful tool in the early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.

A low score on a simple memory test may be able to help doctors diagnose Alzheimer’s disease earlier.

In new research published today in the journal Neurology, researchers report that people who got a poor score on a simple memory test had higher levels of beta-amyloid plaque than their peers.

“These findings suggest that this test can be used to improve our ability to detect cognitive decline in the stage before people are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease,” Ellen Grober, PhD, author of the study and a researcher at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, said in a press release.

“This could be helpful in determining who to enroll in clinical trials for prevention of cognitive decline,” she said. “It could also help by narrowing down those who already have signs of Alzheimer’s in the brain with a simple test rather than expensive or invasive scans or lumbar punctures.”

In undertaking the study, Grober and colleagues enlisted more than 4,000 people with no cognitive issues. The average age of the participants was 71.

The participants underwent a test in which they were shown pictures of a certain object and given a clue about the category that item belonged in, such as an image of grapes with the clue of “fruit” as a category.

Those who participated in the study were then asked to remember the item. If they couldn’t recall the item, they were asked to name the category.

In older people without dementia, such a technique may help with mild memory retrieval issues. However, such a technique would not be helpful for those experiencing dementia.

Based on how they scored in the test, the participants were placed in five groups from 0 to 4. The first three groups were for people who had trouble remembering an item at first but could remember if given clues.

Members in groups three and four had difficulty remembering items even with clues.

About 30 percent of people in group zero had evidence of beta-amyloid plaque on their brain scans, which is a biomarker for Alzheimer’s.

Another 31 percent of people had beta-amyloid plaque in group one, 35 percent in group two, 40 percent in group three, and 44 percent in group four.

“This system allows us to distinguish between the following: the difficulty people have retrieving memories when they are still able to create and store memories in their brains, which occurs in the very early stages before dementia can be diagnosed; and the memory storage problems that occur later in this predementia phase when people can no longer store the memories in their brains,” Grober said.

Dr. Scott Kaiser, a geriatrician and the director of Geriatric Cognitive Health for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, said the results of the study are important.

“It’s amazing the way they correlated this test with likelihood of somebody going on to develop dementia,” he said.

Kaiser told Healthline that for people who are in the earlier states, the test scores could help predict the onset of dementia by 5 to 8 years. For people in the more advanced stages, signs like this could show up before diagnosis by 1 to 3 years.

“This is really incredible to be able to use this test — to be able to see what’s going on with people in terms of their retrieval difficulty — before they actually even have the diagnosis,” he added.

The study authors note there were some limitations to the study, one being that those enrolled had a higher level of education, meaning the results may not apply to the general population.

Lower levels of education are a potential risk factor for Alzheimer’s.

“Education level certainly correlates with dementia risk and dementia outcomes. And, in fact, when we think about dementia from a public health perspective, one of the most important things we could do to reduce the future population burden of dementia is… increase education levels as much as possible across the board,” Kaiser said.

While the memory test and staging methods used in the study may for now only be used in the context of research or enrollment in clinical trials, Kaiser said there are other options for people to determine their cognitive function.

“There are a lot of other tools out there,” he said. “Many that can be self-administered, some that you can do over apps, and others that require nothing more than a pencil and paper. And that can be done in a variety of settings.”

“That’s really exciting because that’s going to be our best bet to get ahead of this for ourselves, or our family members… for our communities and for our society,” he added.