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At-home dementia test stirs interest, debate

75-year old Peter Schweitzer takes the SAGE at-home screening test for dementia. Photo credit: Kate Cox / Columbia Radio News

75-year old Peter Schweitzer takes the SAGE at-home screening test for dementia. Photo credit: Kate Cox / Columbia Radio News.

HOST INTRO: Last month, researchers at the Ohio State University released a study that showed a test you can take at home was effective in detecting early signs of dementia. Their findings peaked so much interest in the test that the university website briefly shut down. As Kate Cox reports, not everybody who studies dementia is impressed. (00:16)

Peter Schweitzer is 75, which puts him right in the center of the demographic that should be tested for dementia. But he has another reason to worry. In 2010, his wife Susan died from complications related to Alzheimer’s disease.

SCHWEITZER: She had a series of mini-strokes and she passed away on her birthday. And it was a very difficult time for everyone. (00:08)

So, he’s downloaded the Self-Administered Gerocognitive Exam, or SAGE. The whole test takes about fifteen minutes. It looks like a couple of pages from an elementary school workbook. The beginning is a series of yes or no diagnostic questions.

SCHWEITZER: Do you have more difficulties doing everyday activities due to thinking problems? (00:07)

Those are followed by a series of pictures of objects you have to identify and some geometry. Then a couple of inductive reasoning questions along the lines of, “How are a watch and a ruler similar?”

SCHWEITZER: Well, a watch tells time, a ruler gives distance, so they’re very specific in what they are looking for in terms of measurements. (00:10)

You don’t get results at the end of the test. You still have to take it to a physician for interpretation. Schweitzer says his wife may have had Alzheimer’s for years before he or her doctors knew what it was. That’s why Dr. Doug Scharre and his team at the Ohio State University developed SAGE.

SCHARRE: We are just doing such a poor job of identifying individuals at an early stage. (00:10)

Scharre says there are hundreds of tests already used to measure cognitive abilities. But they have to be administered by medical professionals in controlled settings.

SCHARRE: You have to take time to give it. That’s really the beauty of this validated test is that it’s practical. (00:10)

Dr. J. Wesson Ashford doesn’t think SAGE is so beautiful in practice.

ASHFORD: The people with the worst memories aren’t aware they have a memory problem. (00:03)

Ashford is part of an advisory board that screens exams for the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. He says SAGE is asking a lot of people who may be suffering from dementia.

ASHFORD: To have a person download their own test, and then take it and then, if they have a problem, remember to go and see a doctor…It really seems like it’s sort of pushing credibility. (00:10)

Ashford believes SAGE would be more credible if, like other tests, it were administered by a medical professional in a doctor’s office.

ASHFORD: It would be discovered early, which we think would have a lot of benefits down the road. (00:06)

But there are already too many screening exams for dementia, he says. The results aren’t standardized. And for researchers trying to find treatments for the condition, there’s no way to compare the results of one test to another. What people suffering from dementia really need is better tests, not more.

Kate Cox, Columbia Radio News.

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