• Researchers say they may be able to diagnose dementia 9 years before symptoms appear.
  • They say falls, balance, and impairment in problem-solving may be early signs of dementia.
  • Experts say early diagnosis is crucial as it allows treatments to begin earlier and provides people with an opportunity to participate in clinical trials.

It could be possible to spot warning signs of numerous dementia-related diseases up to 9 years before a diagnosis.

That’s according to research published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge and Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in the United Kingdom examined data from the UK Biobank.

The findings from the research included the following:

  • Those who developed Alzheimer’s disease were more likely to have fallen in the previous 12 months.
  • Those who developed progressive supranuclear palsy, which affects balance, were more than twice as likely as other individuals to have had a fall.
  • Those who developed dementia-related diseases were more likely to have impairment in problem-solving and number recall.

The scientists noted that participants had poorer overall health at the baseline for every condition studied, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Lewy Body dementia.

Falls can signal cognitive impairment, according to a 2021 study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience.

“Falls can be related to a variety of orthopedic or brain issues,” said Dr. Douglas Scharcre, a professor of clinical neurology and psychiatry at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.

“Balance or gait impairment from degenerative disorders and strokes are very common,” Scharre told Healthline. “Falls have been correlated with the development of dementia. A fall could suggest impairment in motor areas, coordination areas, and balance areas of the brain. It should signal the need to look for causes that can be prevented or treated.”

There are currently few treatments for dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases. Typically, medical professionals diagnose these conditions only after symptoms appear. However, the disease progression could have begun years or decades before symptoms started.

“When we looked back at patients’ histories, it became clear that they were showing some cognitive impairment several years before their symptoms became obvious enough to prompt a diagnosis,” Nol Swaddiwudhipong, a study author and a junior doctor at the University of Cambridge, said in a press statement. “The impairments were often subtle, but across several aspects of cognition.”

By the time of diagnosis, it is frequently too late to alter the disease’s course or allow a person’s inclusion in clinical trials.

“For degenerative disorders, which are progressive conditions, it is not surprising to see the pre-diagnostic cognitive and functional decline,” said Scharre. “We do not do a good job diagnosing patients at the earliest stages of these disorders.”

“We recommend cognitive testing to get a baseline and follow it over time to see changes for the individual patient and pick up on changes earlier,” Scharre continued. “If we can identify cognitive changes earlier, it will allow more access to disease-modifying treatments and lead to better outcomes.”

An earlier diagnosis can also help identify people able to participate in studies that look for potential new treatments.

“The problem with clinical trials is that by necessity, they often recruit patients with a diagnosis, but we know that by this point they are already some way down the road, and their condition cannot be stopped,” Tim Rittman, PhD, a senior clinical research fellow in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Cambridge and a senior study author, said in a press statement. “If we can find these individuals early enough, we’ll have a better chance of seeing if the drugs are effective.”

Other early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, include:

  • Memory loss that interferes with daily life
  • Difficulty with planning and problem solving
  • Difficulty completing familiar tasks
  • Confusion with time or place
  • Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
  • New problems with words in speaking or writing
  • Missing items or losing the ability to retrace steps
  • Decreased or poor judgment
  • Withdrawal from work or social activities
  • Changes in mood and personality

If you notice any of these signs in yourself or a loved one, you should talk with your physician. While it may be difficult to start the conversation, early detection and diagnosis may help with treatment, experts say.