Age UK Sunderland, which delivers the Essence Service – designed to offer support specifically for people recently diagnosed with dementia and those who look after them – believes that the development of a new test that could spot dementia years before people experience memory symptoms, could change the way care is provided and ultimately, slow down the onset of dementia.
Researchers at Moorfields Eye Hospital and the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology found a link between poor cognitive ability – a “clear warning sign” of the early stages of Alzheimer’s – and the thickness of people’s retinal nerves. Doctors believe diagnosing the condition early is essential for most effective treatment.
Alan Patchett, director of Age UK Sunderland – which works on behalf of Sunderland Clinical Commissioning Group to deliver care to those recently diagnosed with dementia – said that the cutting edge new tests will allow services like Essence to step in sooner and help delay the development of dementia.
He said: “Dementia is a condition that touches the lives of so many people, and while a diagnosis can be heartbreaking, it is important people know that it needn’t mean life has to change immediately.
“Early diagnosis of dementia can be a blessing; the earlier you know you have it, the more you can do to treat it and delay its effects. There are many ways of slowing down the development of dementia, and we at the Essence Service deliver a range of support services and groups that can do just that. The ability to spot those at risk of dementia sooner, and deliver the right support, could be totally life-changing and I am glad to see that we are making some progress in the battle against this condition.”
Age UK Sunderland works in partnership with Sunderland Carers’ Centre, The Alzheimer’s Society and many other partners across Sunderland, to provide the Essence Service. Evidence suggests that when a person has an early diagnosis of dementia, staying active is essential as it slows down its progression and maintains wellbeing, so the Essence Service offers a variety of activities from its Doxford Park Centre that are designed to keep people’s mind stimulated, including coffee mornings, reminiscence sessions, seated exercise, iPad workshops, arts and crafts and much more.
Dr Clare Walton, research manager at the Alzheimer’s Society, said: “Changes in the brain associated with dementia can begin several years before any memory symptoms appear. This research suggests that some of these changes happen in the retina of the eye, too, which could give us a relatively easy, non-invasive way to spot them early.
“Eye tests are fairly common for older people, so there is great potential to incorporate additional tests into their regular checkup.”
While the tests could help with early intervention, it is not expected to be a primary way to diagnose the condition, she added. Other findings presented at the conference suggest smell tests could help predict cognitive decline and detect early-stage Alzheimer’s disease.
Mr Patchett added: “We know the difference that the Essence Service is making to people’s lives and it’s not just about the social benefits, it is about the longer-term impact of their condition.”