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03 November 2014 - The Guardian - Brain age tests to be offered to middle-aged in battle against dementia

Mark Tran

Experts welcome computer-based examination, that analyses patients’ lifestyle to calculate risk to brain health

Doctors are to offer middle-aged patients the opportunity to take a computer-based test designed to show how their “brain age” compares with their biological age as a way of encouraging them to pursue healthier lifestyles.

The computer-based test, devised by Public Health England, will be piloted by GPs in the next few months. The programme makes calculations based on the answers to questions about habits such as exercise, drinking, smoking and weight, combined with clinical data on blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Charles Alessi, Public Health England (PHE) lead on dementia, said the scheme was voluntary and did not amount to screening. “We already perform health checks and this extends what we are doing. We are not talking about screening and we are not compelling people to take the test,” he said.

“We are offering people an opportunity to know exactly how risk factors can influence the rate of decline of their cognitive functions. Dementia is a whole group of conditions and we can manage some of the risks. We know, for example, smoking can accelerate cognitive decline.”

Dementia experts welcomed the development of the test. The Alzheimer’s Society, which is working with PHE and academic partners on tools to help people understand their brain age and dementia risk, said the programme was in the early stages of development and that more research is needed before finding a reliable risk calculator.

“We know that what’s good for your heart is good for your head, and increasing evidence shows that lifestyle choices like smoking and excessive alcohol consumption can increase your risk of developing dementia,” said Jeremy Hughes, chief executive at Alzheimer’s Society.

“GPs have conversations with patients about lifestyle every day, and it’s right that we continue to help them make informed choices. A risk calculator could be a useful tool in a clinician’s armoury but shouldn’t be imposed on patients.”