An analysis of data from the Health and Retirement Study has yielded a startling revelation: 91 percent of people experiencing symptoms of dementia have not had a formal medical diagnosis of the neurodegenerative disease.
These numbers came as a surprise to researchers from the University of Michigan who performed the study. “(The discrepancy) was higher than I was expecting,” said study coauthor Sheria Robinson-Lane.
The study tracked survey data collected from around 6 million Americans aged 65 and older, and put a spotlight on a serious gap in cognitive screening and monitoring in older adults. According to Robinson-Lane, the pandemic has only exacerbated this problem: those with dementia have a higher risk of hospitalization and death as a result of COVID-19 infections. Additionally, COVID-19 can spike the risk of future dementia-related conditions in patients.
“Now more than ever, these routine screenings and assessments are really critical,” said Robinson-Lane. “I think it’s particularly important to have some baseline information available to providers of patients over 65.”
Integrating cognitive function tests into routine health assessments for older adults can help bridge this gap, say the study’s authors, who add that a telemedicine approach could help extend the reach of such initiatives.
The team also found that gender, education, and race were linked to the prevalence of being undiagnosed with dementia despite experiencing symptoms.
“There is a large disparity in dementia-related treatment and diagnosis among Black older adults, who are often diagnosed much later in the disease trajectory compared to other racial and ethnic groups,” Robinson-Lane explained.
The authors stress the importance of early interventions when it comes to dementia and encourage senior adults and their family members to open up lines of communication around mental health with their medical providers to seek assistance should they begin to experience symptoms.