News round-up (3 November 2023)

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2nd November 2023 about a 5 minute read

People over the age of 50 experienced a decline in their cognitive function during the pandemic, research has found – even if they weren’t infected with Covid. Another study has found that elderly people experience longer A&E waits than younger patients, while UCL researchers predict that the number of people in England and Wales with dementia may reach 1.7m by 2040. More positively, AI continues to show encouraging results in interpreting scan results, and the rollout of new heart drugs in the past 18 months is believed to have saved 4,000 lives.

Covid pandemic affected brain health of the over-50s

People over the age of 50 experienced a decline in cognitive function during the pandemic, a study has found.

More than 3,000 volunteers completed yearly questionnaires and online cognitive tests to measure changes in memory and other faculties during the pandemic. The results showed that people’s brain function declined, regardless of whether or not they’d had Covid.

The study, called PROTECT, was carried out by academics at the University of Exeter and published in the Lancet Healthy Longevity journal. PROTECT was set up to help understand how healthy brains age and why some people develop dementia.

Lead investigator Professor Anne Corbett said: “Our findings suggest that lockdowns and other restrictions we experienced during the pandemic have had a real, lasting impact on brain health in people aged 50 or over, even after the lockdowns ended.”

AI grades cancer severity twice as effectively as biopsy

Artificial intelligence (AI) is nearly twice as good at grading the aggressiveness of a rare form of cancer, retroperitoneal sarcoma, as the current commonly-used method, according to a new study.

Using imaging scans, the AI software was able to recognise details invisible to the naked eye. As a result, it was 82% accurate, compared to the 44% accuracy achieved using lab analysis of a biopsy.

The researchers, based at the Royal Marsden Hospital and Institute of Cancer Research, used a technique called radiomics to identify signs of retroperitoneal sarcoma, which develops in the connective tissue of the back of the abdomen, in scans of 170 patients.

Using this data, the AI algorithm was able to analyse scans to grade the aggressiveness of 89 other European and US hospital patients’ tumours.

About 4,300 people in England are diagnosed with retroperitoneal sarcoma each year.

Speedy rollout of clot-busting drugs saves 4,000 lives in 18 months

The rollout of blood-thinning drugs on the NHS has probably saved 4,000 lives in 18 months, according to Amanda Pritchard, NHS England’s chief executive.

Almost half a million more people have been put on the drugs, known as direct oral anticoagulants, since January last year, and estimates suggest this will prevent about 17,000 strokes and 4,000 deaths in England. The medication for atrial fibrillation (irregular heart rhythms), which increases the risk of stroke, has been found to be more effective than previous treatments, and requires less frequent monitoring.

Pritchard said that the uptake of the medication constituted a “monumental step forward” for the health service.

Previously, most patients with atrial fibrillation have been prescribed the blood thinner warfarin, which requires visits to their GP surgery or hospital at least every 12 weeks for blood tests.

Older people twice as likely to face long A&E waits

Frail elderly people are twice as likely as other patients to face long A&E waits, according to a new study.

The research, carried out by academics at the University of Warwick, examined data from 152 hospitals in the UK relating to 7,248 emergency hospital admissions.

It found that just 35% of people living with frailty or conditions linked to ageing, such as Alzheimer’s disease, received an initial assessment within the target time of four hours. This compared to a figure of 76% for patients as a whole.

Researchers said the findings suggested that older people were being treated as a lower priority, while younger people with simpler problems were favoured for quicker treatment.

Increased use of private health care puts pressure on GPs

The rise in the number of people using private healthcare for tests and treatments is adding to pressure on overstretched GP surgeries, a survey of GPs has found.

The survey, carried out by the magazine Pulse, was completed by 860 GPs, 46% of whom said that their workload had increased amid the surge in private healthcare use. One in 10 said their workload had “significantly increased” as a result.

Record numbers of people are now paying for private healthcare, including procedures such as cataract surgery and hip replacements, in response to lengthy  NHS hospital waiting lists. Others are opting for private health checks, genetic testing or cosmetic surgery.

This increase in private healthcare use has increased workload for NHS GPs, however, many of whom say they are expected to interpret the results of private health checks or manage additional administration related to private care. Some say more of their hours are taken up in providing follow-up appointments after patients have paid for treatment or surgery abroad.

Dementia to affect 1.7m people in England and Wales by 2040

New data suggests that 1.7 million people will have dementia by 2040.

The research, published in the Lancet Public Health journal, said the “burden on health and social care might be considerably larger than currently forecast”. Led by University College London (UCL), it updated previous work suggesting cases would reach 1.2 million people in 2040.

The rate decreased by 29% between 2002 and 2008 but grew by a quarter between 2008 and 2016, according to the study.

“Dementia incidence followed a nonlinear trend in England and Wales with a declining trend from 2002 to 2008 and an increased trend from 2008 to 2016,” the researchers wrote. “If the upward incidence trend continues, along with population ageing, the number of people with dementia in England and Wales is projected to increase to 1.7 million in 2040.”

Dr Yuntao Chen, of the UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, said the rise would “have a devastating effect on the lives of those involved” and “will also put a considerably larger burden on health and social care than current forecasts predict.”