All pensioners could be screened for signs of Alzheimer’s within two years.
Advances in science mean there is a range of blood, brain and memory tests capable of picking up dementia in its earliest stages.
By 2013, they could be in use in GPs’ surgeries, allowing anyone over 65 with dangerous memory lapses to be treated when it will help them the most.
Excitingly, within just five to ten years, we should have drugs that will stop Alzheimer’s in its tracks – meaning those caught early through screening need never go on to suffer the cruel disease.
Even delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s by five years could halve the number who die with the condition, currently a third of over-65s.
Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia affect more than 800,000 Britons, and the number is expected to double in a generation.
Speaking at the launch of an international drive to improve the treatment of mental health disorders, Barbara Sahakian, a professor at Cambridge University’s psychiatry department, said routine screening would end the ‘tragedy’ of people being diagnosed with the disease too late.
Currently, a third of cases of dementia go undiagnosed and untreated – but in some areas the figure is as high as 74 per cent.
And many of those who do get a diagnosis don’t get it until relatively late in the progression of the disease.
Professor Sahakian said: ‘I am shocked some people are allowed to deteriorate so much and then finally someone figures out that they probably have Alzheimer’s disease and takes them to the GP and psychiatrist. By that time the drugs don’t work as effectively. It is tragic.’
Current diagnosis is usually based on memory tests. But with sample questions including ‘where are you?’ and ‘who is prime minister?’ they are of little use in catching the disease early, said the professor.
Around the world, including Britain, tests are being developed that spot signs of the disease in the blood.
One, being developed at Proteome Sciences at King’s College London, uses a pinprick of blood. Other tests pick up changes in the brain, the eyes, or use computer-based games to test memory.
Professor Sahakian has developed a memory test that could be done on a laptop in a GP’s surgery in just ten minutes and distinguish between normal forgetfulness and the lapses that are likely to turn into Alzheimer’s.
She said many of the tests are ‘good to go’ and it now needs to be worked out which work best and if they are better used alone or in combination. This could take two years – after which screening could be introduced.
Initially, those with potentially dangerous memory lapses could be prescribed existing Alzheimer’s drugs such as Aricept.
While they do not halt the march of 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 stop Alzheimer’s in its tracks, in time, it may be possible to stop people from ever developing the disease.
The professor – part of a global taskforce who list early dementia diagnosis as one of the 25 top challenges in mental health medicine in a commentary in the journal Nature this week – said: ‘To some extent it depends on the side-effects.
‘If they don’t have many side-effects, they’ll be available within five years. But if they have to do more work on reducing side-effects, it will be ten years. If there is a neuroprotective agent and it stops the disease process, then presumably you would die of something else, it wouldn’t be Alzheimer’s disease.’
Rebecca Wood, of Alzheimer’s Research UK, cautioned: ‘It’s possible that screening could improve diagnosis rates – however, screening for any disease is controversial. We need more research to assess whether a screening programme could really help, or whether it would produce falsely positive or negative results.’
The Alzheimer’s Society said the charity was funding research into treatments that give benefits five times longer than current dementia drugs.