Dementia rates are on the rise, and soon, the burden of identifying the disease may fall to primary care physicians rather than neurologists. Unfortunately, imaging tests and spinal taps are expensive, invasive, and just "not practical," the Mayo Clinic's Dr. Ronald Petersen tells Time. So he has come up with a new strategy: a simple, three-part test that lets doctors identify a person's risk of developing mild cognitive impairment that could progress to Alzheimer's disease, the LA Times reports. The first step: Doctors collected data on age, memory issues, family history with Alzheimer's, and factors linked to the disease, like smoking and diabetes; they then reviewed basic mental exams and psychiatric evaluations. The second step: They analyzed motor function based on how fast a patient could walk a short distance.
Researchers ran the test using 1,449 patients over 70 in Minnesota; each factor believed to boost a person's MCI risk came with a score, Medical Xpress reports. Patients with scores in the top 25% were seven times more likely to develop MCI than those in the bottom 25%. By performing the first two steps for every patient over 65, Petersen suggests physicians can better understand changes over time. Only if doctors notice red flags should they complete the third step: a blood analysis that could identify genetic factors, like versions of the ApoE gene, linked to Alzheimer's. Petersen wants to duplicate the results before recommending the strategy, but he hopes better diagnosis can lead to more participation in clinical trials of dementia drugs. (Read why some are cautious about a blood test for early detection.)