A simple neck scan that takes less than five minutes could be an important indicator that patients will develop Alzheimer’s disease. Long before symptoms appear in an individual, damage to the brain can be identified through measuring their pulse.
This is according to a study from University College London (UCL), which suggests the pulse in the neck can indicate future memory problems in old age. It looked at more than 3,000 individuals and found that those with the strongest pulse rates were up to 50 per cent more likely to experience rapid cognitive decline in the ten years that followed.
Repeating the results in a bigger study could mean that neck scans become a routine way to test to see if middle-aged people are likely to develop dementia. There are currently a whole host of non-invasive methods being trialled, as cognitive decline is such a huge issue in the elderly population.
The reason why measuring the pulse is such a telltale sign is due to the fact that healthy blood vessels have good elasticity and are therefore cushioned as the blood runs through them. As people age and if they have high blood pressure, the vessels stiffen and a stronger pulse can be detected.
To carry out the research, scientists at UCL measured the pulses of the 3,191 test subjects, who had an average age of 61. They took the readings from the carotid artery in the neck, as this is the major blood supply to the brain, which can lead to memory problems if there are issues with the vessels.
Using an ultrasound scanner measures the sound waves that bounce off the blood vessel and can be done in just a matter of minutes. The researchers then followed up with each of the patients regularly over the course of 15 years to monitor their memories and ability to problem solve.
The trend that was discovered was that the top quartile with the highest intensity pulses at the beginning of the study were 50 per cent more likely to experience cognitive decline. This correlated with the 15 per cent of individuals whose thinking abilities dropped most rapidly.
Dr Scott Chiesa, of UCL, said the research demonstrated “an easily measurable and potentially treatable cause of cognitive decline in middle-aged adults which can be spotted well in advance”.
Establishing a diagnosis in plenty of time is an important factor in the prognosis for those living with dementia and Alzheimer’s. The longer it goes undetected then the more advanced the condition becomes and with no cure at present it is impossible to reverse the damage done to the brain.
Professor Metin Avkiran, of the British Heart Foundation, which co-funded the study, said: “What we need now is further research – for example, to understand whether lifestyle changes and medicines that reduce pulse wave intensity also delay cognitive decline.”
Whatever the outcome of future research, studies like this one that show the body has ways to point medical practitioners towards the early signs of dementia certainly offer hope. Anyone who has a relative living with the condition will know how it affects all aspects of their life.