A possible path to earlier detection of Alzheimer’s

December 5, 2019 - Kelly O'Brien

Imagine a future in which healthcare providers conduct regular cognitive assessments of their patients, creating an information baseline that would enable them to better detect and diagnose Alzheimer’s at its earliest stages, potentially before symptoms even emerge.

Consider the myriad benefits of early detection and diagnosis of cognitive impairment. Patients could receive treatments for reversible, non-Alzheimer’s causes of impairment; implement lifestyle changes that may slow or potentially even prevent cognitive decline; make plans for their financial future; and take part in clinical trials that are so important for learning more about how the disease impacts patients at the earliest stages.

While UsAgainstAlzheimer’s aspires to such a time, unfortunately, there is much work to be done to create this optimal system of brain health care in the U.S. In fact, our research has found that 86 percent of nurse practitioners (NPs) report not having a standard diagnostic tool for cognitive impairment, and 68 percent of patients report they raise brain health issues. More than 50 percent of nurse practitioners currently are not having conversations about brain health with patients.

Moreover, the latest studies show that more than 40 percent of mild dementia cases go undetected by primary care physicians, and half of Americans suffering from Alzheimer’s are never told they have the disease.

As a result, doctors too often don’t discover cognitive decline until patients have serious symptoms and have had the disease for quite some time.

Alzheimer’s is the only top-10 cause of death in America without an effective treatment or cure, and the problem is exacerbated by the fact that providers fail to diagnose early on. The American people would never accept a healthcare system that doesn’t diagnose cancer until Stage 4 – why should Alzheimer’s disease be any different?

Our commitment to early detection of Alzheimer’s and the importance of establishing a cognitive baseline is also why UsAgainstAlzheimer’s is a partner in a new three-year health study with Savonix.

The Alzheimer’s Disease Discovery Study (ASSIST) Study will digitally collect cognitive data, health history and lifestyle tracking data from at least 400,000 individuals, with an emphasis on diversity.

Researchers have never before attempted a brain health study of this scope. By examining a larger and more diverse population than any previous study, the ASSIST Study aims to identify how a wide range of factors influence our risk of developing dementia. The data from this study will provide knowledge of how lifestyle factors that increase dementia risk can result in cognitive changes across an individual’s life.

How the study works

The ASSIST study will ask people to complete a short health history form with information on risk factors for the development of dementia such as smoking, alcohol intake, diet and exercise combined with direct measurements of daily behavior from their digital devices including sleep, heart rate variability, exercise, blood glucose levels, and other critical bio and psycho-social markers. Participants will also take a 15-minute Savonix Mobile cognitive assessment that is aligned with criteria for minor and major cognitive impairment. Each participant will be asked to complete the health history and cognitive tests two different times over a two-year period.

Upon completion of the study, participants will receive personalized results of their brain function across multiple domains, including memory, attention and focus.

To be eligible for the study, participants need to be 22 years old or older, live in the United States and have access to an Internet-connected mobile device, such as an Android phone or tablet or an iOS device, such as an iPhone or iPad.

Here is a video that explains more about the study.

What’s at stake

Currently, about 5.8 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s, a number that is projected to balloon to 14 million by 2050. This disease also affects millions of families and caregivers and incurs an immense fiscal cost to our nation.

By the end of 2019, Alzheimer’s will cost our healthcare system $290 billion. Much of these costs come from Medicare and Medicaid payments, with Medicaid payments on average 23 times higher for those with Alzheimer’s compared to those without, and Medicare payments three times greater on average. By 2050, estimates show that direct costs alone will increase to $1.1 trillion – unless researchers develop an effective treatment or cure for Alzheimer’s.

UsAgainstAlzheimer’s believes the ASSIST Study could play an important role in accelerating early intervention efforts and drug development, which are critical elements necessary to bring a stop to this insidious disease.

About the Author


Kelly O'Brien

Executive Director, Brain Health Partnership