A phone app that monitors puzzle scores will help GPs spot which of their patients are suffering from some of the early signs of dementia.
Starting next month, 1,000 people aged 40 and over will participate in a study launched to try to detect early cases of mild cognitive impairment.
Experts from the University of Exeter have designed eight puzzles that test short- and long-term memory, reaction time, attention and reasoning skills.
Participants will be asked to complete the tests every six months, and scores will be tracked using an algorithm.
Anyone who begins to experience a decline in their scores (outside the realm of what would be expected with normal aging) will be flagged in the system.
A phone app that monitors puzzle scores will help GPs in England detect which of their patients are suffering from some of the early signs of dementia.
The app will then send an alert via a portal to participants’ GP, who can provide support and advice or refer them to a memory clinic.
The program, called Reactive, will involve three years of study and two more years of analysis.
And, if successful, experts hope it can be rolled out across the NHS to the general public.
Anne Corbett, professor of dementia research and leader of the study, said: “We know that 99 per cent of people with early signs of problems with memory and brain health are not seen by a doctor.
‘However, these are the people who will benefit most from early assessment, diagnosis and treatment.
“Computerized brain health tests are much more sensitive and accurate than traditional paper-and-pencil tests, and using an app means we can reach large numbers of people in an affordable way.
‘This research program is a big step forward towards better brain health for older adults, harnessing the best technology to help both people and doctors.
“It will give us vital insights into how to fill current gaps in aging healthcare and provide a valuable new tool to improve the health and wellbeing of older people in the NHS.” Professor Corbett said the aim is for GPs to give health advice or even prescribe brain training games to patients who have been flagged by the system, to help improve their brain health over time.
“Our hope is that this will connect people in the community with their primary care doctor at the right time,” he said.
‘What we want to do is take everyone to their GP, all the ‘worried’. We’re trying to be really responsive and use data-driven approaches, to make sure the right people come at the right time.
‘Prevention is better than cure. That’s really the goal: to find these people, understand what their current medical conditions are, their current lifestyle and their mental health, and have a precise and specific approach so that we can reduce their individual risk of continuing to progress.” Mild cognitive in itself does not mean that a person will develop dementia.
But there are certain things they could do to reduce the risk of this happening, Professor Corbett said.
This includes getting more physical activity, quitting smoking and losing weight if you are obese.
“That’s why we target people who are in the early stages of the changes,” he said. «We know that the sooner you intervene, the better the chances of stopping and reducing the risk of developing dementia later.
“There is now compelling evidence that we can reduce the risk very effectively.” The programme, announced at the British Science Festival in Exeter, is backed by almost £2m from the National Institute for Health and Care Research.
Around 950,000 people in the UK have dementia and experts say identifying cognitive decline early is key to tackling the problem.
Dr Susan Mitchell, head of policy at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “With two potentially transformative Alzheimer’s treatments on the horizon for the NHS, there is a growing need to identify and diagnose people in the early stages of disease progression, when these treatments are most likely to be effective.
“This means diagnosing people 10 to 15 years earlier than they are diagnosed now, at a time when symptoms are not always evident.
‘The REACTIVE app, if proven clinically effective, could be an important brain health monitoring tool. It could help identify people who are in the early stages of dementia and identify those who may be at higher risk of developing the condition later in life.
‘The app could also help prompt primary care services to offer personalized prevention to those most at risk, which could help reduce the number of people living with dementia in the future.
“While the REACTIVE app could help doctors monitor brain health, there are also steps we can all take to keep our brains healthy, such as exercising regularly and staying socially connected, and it’s never too early or too late to Act”. Dr Richard Oakley, Associate Director of Research and Innovation at Alzheimer’s Society, said: “Dementia is a devastating terminal disease and is the leading cause of death in the UK.”
‘For people experiencing symptoms of dementia, a timely and accurate diagnosis is crucial to managing the condition and avoiding ending up in a crisis: it is the first step in helping families plan for the future, unlocking access to treatment, care And the support.
‘Funding technological innovations like this is very important as it can really make a difference to families facing these diseases. New technologies have the potential to speed up the diagnosis process and help people remain independent and live full lives for as long as possible.’