The middle and late stages of dementia are clear to identify, whereas early stages are often overlooked. The World Health Organization reports onset of dementia is gradual, so symptoms, such as forgetfulness, losing track of time, and becoming lost in familiar places fly under the radar. But a new study published in Neurology may have figured out how to prevent this from happening.

"Our goal is to identify memory issues at the earliest possible stages," Dr. Ronald C. Petersen, study author of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., said in a press release. "Understanding what factors can help us predict who will develop this initial stage of memory and thinking problems, called mild cognitive impairment (MCI), is crucial, because people with MCI have an increased risk of developing dementia." The Alzheimer’s Association defines MCI as a subtle but measurable memory disorder.

Petersen and his team recruited 1,449 people between the ages of 70 and 89 without MCI or dementia. Participants first took a series of related tests, included tests that asked questions like: “Do you feel as if you have any problems with any aspect of your thinking or memory lately?” Trained nurses were also brought on to evaluate participants' history of hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, heart failure, and stroke. Then researchers re-administered tests at 15-month intervals over the course of the nearly five-year study.

The results: 401 people developed MCI during the study. By using three clinical models, researchers were able to derive a participant’s risk score for developing MCI and dementia. The score factored in the demographics and clinical information collected throughout the study, with each being assigned a point value. For example, having 12 or few years of education added two points to a participant’s score, while being diagnosed with diabetes before age 75 added 14 points to the score.

“We developed risk scores for predicting incident MCI using variables that can easily be obtained in a clinical setting,” researchers wrote. “Although not all persons with MCI progress to dementia, they are at greater risk than cognitively normal individuals.”

Researchers added using a model to score a person’s memory problems “provides a wider opportunity to initiate preventive measures.” Risk scores for MCI could then be used to identify the patients most likely to benefit from additional biomarker information procured through advanced testing.

In addition to education and diabetes, participants who self-reported memory complaints, were taking a number of medications, and those who had a slow gait were at increased risk for MCI. But interestingly, the APOE gene (which has been linked to increased risk for dementia) served only as a moderate risk factor. Factors, such as "age, depression, and anxiety disorders, and memory or functional abilities" were greater predictors of MCI.

"This risk scale may be an inexpensive and easy way for doctors to identify people who should undergo more advanced testing for memory issues or may be better candidates for clinical trials," Petersen said.

Source: Pankratz V.S., et al. Predicting the risk of mild cognitive impairment in the Mayo Clinic Study of Aging. Neurology. 2015.