A ten-minute memory test that gives early warning of Alzheimer’s in people as young as 50 is being piloted in GP surgeries.
Using a touch-screen computer or an iPad, it can distinguish between normal forgetfulness and the more dangerous memory lapses that signal dementia in its earliest stages.
If trials are successful, it could be in widespread use in under a year.
The Cambridge University scientists who have developed it hope it can become part of a national screening programme.
Those found to have tell-tale memory problems could do brain training, change their diet and take more exercise, in an attempt to keep their brain healthy for as long as possible.
In just five to ten years, drugs may be available that will stop Alzheimer’s in its tracks, so those caught early now may never go on to develop the cruel disease.
Professor Barbara Sahakian, co-inventor of the Cantab test, said: ‘You want to detect Alzheimer’s disease before the damage is done, before you can’t work any longer and before you can’t hold down your family responsibilities and relationships.’
Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia affect more than 800,000 Britons and the number is expected to double within a generation.
Current diagnosis usually begins with memory tests and questions including ‘Where are you?’ and ‘Who is Prime Minister?’ However these are of little use in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
The new test has been specifically developed to home in on memory lapses that occur very early in the onset of dementia.
These involve episodic memory, the type used to recall a shopping list or remember where a car is left in a large car park.
The software contains a series of tasks which include memorising the location of objects and then bringing them back to mind when asked a few seconds later.
The participant’s age, sex and education are taken into account when giving him or her a score relative to other people.
Those who do badly can be referred to a specialist memory clinic for a firm diagnosis and treatment.
Initially, those with mild and moderate Alzheimer’s could be prescribed existing drugs such as Aricept.
While these do not halt the disease, they can improve attention and concentration, allowing patients in the very early stages of dementia to stay at work and maintain a normal life for longer.
But, with several companies developing ‘neuroprotective’ medicines that could halt Alzheimer’s completely, it may become possible to prevent people from developing the disease.
Other British scientists have developed a computer-based test that can be taken in the home.
Many other researchers are trying to create blood tests that spot the disease early.
Dr Anne Corbett of the Alzheimer’s Society said: ‘A shocking 60 per cent of people with dementia never receive a diagnosis.
‘This means hundreds of thousands of people do not have access to vital help, support and treatments that could help them live a good quality life and plan for the future. Finding ways of improving the early identification of the condition is therefore essential.
‘This tool could help change this appalling picture. We must now wait for the results of the trials.’