The pin prick blood test that predicts dementia risk from middle age

Health / Mon 29th Jan 2024 at 09:49am

A NEW pinprick blood test that not only aims to predict your future risk for dementia, but tells you how to reduce it, is launched today as part of a global prevention research study aiming to involve a million people worldwide. 

The home-test kit, from the charity FoodfortheBrain.org, measures your blood sugar, vitamin D, omega-3 and B vitamin status which account for more than half the modifiable risks for dementia. The results show how a person can reduce their risk with specific diet changes.

“Alzheimer’s is a preventable, but not reversible disease. Less than one in a hundred cases are directly caused by genes. Prevention is entirely possible if you can identify who is at risk early enough and encourage the right diet and lifestyle changes.” says Patrick Holford, founder of foodforthebrain.org, the UK’s leading dementia prevention charity which is running the prevention project together with Dr Tommy Wood, Assistant Professor at the University of Washington. 

“By tracking a person’s blood sugar, vitamin B, D and omega-3 status against changes in cognitive function over time, in addition to lifestyle factors such as sleep and physical activity, we can learn what really helps prevent cognitive decline.” says Dr Wood, the principal investigator for the study.

The charity has already tested over 410,000 people with their free Cognitive Function Test at foodforthebrain.org, and hopes to enrol a million people, making this the largest ‘citizen science’ global prevention initiative. 

“Subtle changes in cognition occur at least 30 years before a diagnosis, which is why we screen people online with a free Cognitive Function Test. And there are four simple blood tests that are not only predictive, but can help a person to understand how to drive down that risk. I call them the four horsemen of the mental health apocalypse because they also drive depression and ADHD. The incidence of both of these are on the increase” says Holford.

The four tests, called DRIfT (the Dementia Risk Index functional Test) carried out using a simple home-test kit and a single pin prick of blood, add further predictive capability, and help guide the individual to make diet changes to reduce future risk.

Blood sugar (HbA1c) – Even raised blood sugar levels from age 35, but within ‘reference’ ranges, predict a 15 per cent increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease 35 years later, according to research by Boston University School of Medicine.[1] This confirms other research  from the University of Washington showing an 18% increased risk with raised sugar levels in older people seven years later and a 40% increased risk in those with diabetes.[2] Even better than your blood sugar level, which varies across the day, is a long-term measure of blood sugar, called HbA1c, used to predict diabetes, which is what this test measures.

B vitamins (Homocysteine) – Low levels of B12, found in animal products, and folate, found in greens, raise blood levels of homocysteine. Raised homocysteine is considered a top marker for dementia risk, and is a causative driver of the disease process.[3] Studies lowering homocysteine with B vitamins have more than halved the rate of age-related brain shrinkage. A Swedish study, started in 1968, found that those in the top third of homocysteine scores in their 40’s had double the risk for Alzheimer’s almost 35 years later.[4] When homocysteine goes up memory gets worse and when it goes down memory gets better, according to a six-year study in Norway.[5]

About half of all people over 60 have homocysteine levels above 11mcmol/l [6], which is the level associated with increased brain shrinkage. A study in Italy found that those with a homocysteine above 15mcmol/l have five times the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, compared to those with a level below 10.[7]

Last year, a study in China showed that raised homocysteine increases risk of cognitive decline by ten times.[8] Homocysteine is easily lowered by supplementing vitamin B6, B12 and folate but at levels higher than achievable from diet because many older people do not absorb B12 well. 

Oxford University’s health economist Dr Apostolos Tsiachristas estimates “Screening for homocysteine in people over 60 in the UK and treating those with raised levels with B vitamins could save the UK economy approximately £60 million per year.”

Omega-3 – Increased intake of omega-3, either from diet or supplements, and having a higher omega-3 blood level, is associated with cutting risk for dementia by a fifth (20%), according to a study of 48 studies involving over 100,000 people.[9]

Supplementing fish oils[10] cuts risk of dementia by 9%, according to research from the UK Bio Bank. Being in the top third for omega-3 blood levels, compared to the lowest third, reduced the rate of brain shrinkage in a year by more than two thirds in those given B vitamins with mild cognitive impairment.[11]

The omega-3 index, which is what the DRIfT test measures, predicts both brain size and cognitive function.[12] This Oxford University research establishes that the brain needs both sufficient B vitamins and omega-3 to stay healthy.

Vitamin D – Having a higher vitamin D above 75nmol/l (25 ng/ml) cuts risk for Alzheimer’s and dementia by a third.[13]  In turn, those with a vitamin D level below 50nmol/l, increase their risk for Alzheimer’s and dementia by a third.[14]

Six out of 10 adults in the UK[15] and three out of 10 in the US[16] have a vitamin D level below this. Taking vitamin D supplements may help ward off dementia, according to a 2023 study involving over twelve thousand dementia-free 70+ year olds in the US. Those taking vitamin D supplements had 40% lower incidence of dementia during a ten-year period. Vitamin D is essential to supplement during winter months.

These four risk factors, measured in the DRIfT test, are thought to account for over half the modifiable risk for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.[17] Having an active lifestyle, both physically, socially and intellectually further reduces risk substantially. 

To take the free online Cognitive Function Test, the pin prick DRIfT test and join the global prevention study go to www.foodforthebrain.org

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