Tue Sep 6, 2005
By Patricia Reaney
DUBLIN (Reuters) - Could a simple word test be used to identify people who might be suffering from the very early stages of Alzheimer's disease? British scientists think so.
Results of a study presented at a science conference on Tuesday revealed that people in the first stages of the incurable illness cannot write down as many animals and fruits in one-minute period as healthy individuals.
Professor Andy Ellis of the University of York in England also discovered that the characteristics of the words the Alzheimer's sufferers produced were different.
They retained very familiar words, ones heard frequently and words learned in early, rather than late, childhood.
"Just by looking at the characteristics of the words people produced you could correctly determine whether somebody came from the group of healthy controls or the Alzheimer's patients," he told the British Association science meeting.
Ellis and his colleagues believe the results of the study, involving 96 patients and 40 healthy controls with an average age of 77, could form the basis of a test to determine whether elderly patients are just having a "senior moment" or the memory lapse is more serious.
"It is possible that exploring the characteristics of the words that are still available to them might be one of the ways one can begin to detect that something is going wrong," said Ellis.
"There is considerable value in identifying people who are beginning to show the first signs and this might be one way of doing that."
Alzheimer's is the leading cause of dementia in the elderly and affects an estimated 12 million people around the globe. The incidence of the disease is expected to increase as the population ages.
There is no cure for the progressive illness, which robs people of their memory and mental ability, but drug treatments may slow the early progression of the disorder.
Animals listed in the written test by the healthy elderly people included giraffes, zebras and badgers -- creatures seldom seen on the Alzheimer's patient list.
"They are animals whose names children tend to learn more at around the age of 6-10 rather than 1-5," he said, adding they are creatures less talked or heard about than cats or dogs.
Ellis said a test based on the findings may help to assist with the early diagnoses of the illness and allow people to receive treatment as soon as possible.
"The next phase of the research is to look into the possibility of making a prognostic guide," Ellis added.