Early dementia screening is accurate but pointless, researchers find

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Assessment tools can effectively identify people in the early stages of dementia, but existing evidence suggests there is no pressing reason to do this type of cognitive screening, according to newly published research.

Researchers funded by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality systematically reviewed more than 300 prior studies and clinical trials related to early-stage dementia screening and interventions.

“Although it is clear that brief instruments to screen for cognitive impairment can adequately detect dementia, there is no empirical evidence that screening for or early diagnosis of cognitive impairment improves decision-making or important patient, caregiver, or societal outcomes,” the authors wrote.

Medications such as donepezil (Aricept) have been shown to improve cognitive performance, but the benefits for early-stage dementia patients is “probably negligible,” the researchers determined. Cognitive stimulation and exercise have similarly insignificant benefits for this group, they found. And knowing that early-stage dementia is present can help reduce the burden on caregivers, but the “average effects” of “complex interventions aimed at caregivers” were small in the studies analyzed.

Despite the body of existing research, the team noted that further research is needed. For example, they found no studies that have “directly addressed” the potential negative effects of false-positive or false-negative results from early dementia screening.

The project was undertaken for the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, and findings were published online yesterday in the Annals of Internal Medicine.