Dementia can be a difficult condition to spot, but early diagnosis is thought to be key to slowing its progression in an individual. As family members age, it is therefore worth looking out for the small yet tell-tale signs that they have the disease.
Researchers have suggested that microerrors, which can occur during simple everyday tasks, could be vital warnings. So, if an elderly relative starts to have problems with things like making a cup of tea or wrapping a present, there could be an issue.
Scientists from Temple University in Philadelphia have said that actions, such as checking multiple times that a teabag is in a cup or returning to the fridge for the milk when it is already out, are noticeable signs that the brain is failing.
It is important that families differentiate between the normal way in which people become more inefficient at certain tasks as they age and actual errors. A large number of errors could signal the start of cognitive conditions like dementia.
Dr Tania Giovannetti, co-author of the study, said: “Early on, we can look at very subtle errors called 'microerrors'. When we compare healthy agers to young people, there are more microerrors in healthy older adults than young adults, and they're associated with memory problems and cognitive changes.
“Healthy agers reach out to objects inefficiently, they touch them when they don't need to, they make all these extra little actions. We think that might be the beginning of a problem. If you have more of those, then you are more vulnerable to decline in future.”
The scientists behind the research, including Dr Giovannetti, identified two specific types of task-processing failures. One pointed to Alzheimer’s disease, while the other indicated different types of dementia.
Those predisposed to Alzheimer’s miss out vital steps in the process of completing a task or forget that they needed to get it finished. People in the early stages of other forms of dementia often know what all the steps in a task are, but have problems putting them into the right order.
In order to conduct the research, 90 individuals, including 40 people with dementia, were asked to carry out a series of everyday tasks in the laboratory. They included making toast with jam and a cup of coffee, packing a child’s lunch and wrapping up a present.
First of all, they were observed carrying out the task, then asked to describe how they did it. Then, each participant was given pictures of the individual stages of the process and asked to put them into the correct order.
This gave vital insight into the range of functional impairment and how best it could be treated. Relatives of people who have problems with sequencing could help by practicing tasks with their elderly mother, father, aunt or uncle. They could also put up pictures in their home.
For those who forgot to do the tasks in the first place, such measures would be a distraction. That is according to Dr Giovannetti, who was keen to show that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to those with cognitive conditions.