Innovations in Detecting Alzheimer’s Disease

Much attention has recently been brought to moves being made in detection guidelines and prevention technology for Alzheimer’s disease. The new innovations and proposed guidelines come as no surprise considering that as reported by CBS News medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook, “an estimated 4.5 million people currently suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, and that number is expected to triple to more than 13 million by 2050.”

Historically, physicians were not able to diagnose an individual with Alzheimer’s until they began showing symptoms. Even these diagnoses were done through a process of eliminating other possibilities when symptoms indicated possible Alzheimer’s. Until recently, most medical professionals felt that the only way to be sure that someone had Alzheimer’s disease was to perform an autopsy after death. Screening for dementia typically began with administering a short “mini mental” status test. A good diagnostic work up would include these tools plus tests to rule out other (often reversible) causes, a complete history and a thorough physical exam.

According to EasyLiving’s Director of Staff Development, Ric Cavanagh, M.S.W., “the medical community has recently determined that the use of MRI tests, spinal taps and other diagnostic tools can now be used to more accurately diagnose the disease. It’s likely that physicians will increasingly recommend various diagnostic tests to confirm Alzheimer’s disease in the future.”

Now, researchers and physicians are working to be able to detect the disease before it even starts. Concerned about the increase in Alzheimer’s patients, the National Institute on Aging and the Alzheimer’s Association have proposed new diagnostic guidelines. The two organizations initially received opposition from many groups, being accused of creating new guidelines just so large pharmaceutical companies could bring expensive new drugs to market and asked why they wanted to tell people they were doomed. According to an article in the New York Times, during a conference call, the organizations explained that, “they advocated using so-called biomarkers, like scans for amyloid plaque in the brain, a unique feature of Alzheimer’s, and tests of cerebrospinal fluid. Such brain scans are still experimental. The groups said biomarkers would be used, at this stage, only for research, with some patients in studies having tests to see how well such brain changes predict disease. A main goal of the proposed guidelines, which are expected to be adopted, is to find signs of the disease much earlier.”

Concern remains among some regarding the new diagnostics tests because even if someone concerned with memory loss receives a spinal fluid tap test and is told that they might be in early stages of Alzheimer’s, a cure is not available and treatment options are still limited.. However, researchers such as those at the University of South Florida’s School of Aging Studies are currently studying other ways to keep the mind sharp, such as with brain games. While early diagnosis may help with planning and allow individuals to benefit from a wider array of such treatments, it brings with it additional challenges and ethical dilemmnas. Individuals could face stigma and repercussions from being labeled with the diagnosis while still fully functioning and not having any impact from symptoms.

As noted by the Los Angeles Times, “Alzheimer’s disease research centers are a good option for a comprehensive initial evaluation and treatment, and to connect with a group of Alzheimer’s specialists for ongoing care. You can also inquire about research studies, something experts say can improve an Alzheimer’s patients’ cognitive abilities even if they receive a placebo. The Alzheimer’s Assn., which has chapters throughout the country, can help consumers locate specialists and research and treatment centers in their area. Call the 24-hour hotline at (800) 272-3900 or visit the association’s national Web site (http://www.alz.org).”

EasyLiving, Inc. offers specialized home health services for people with all stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Our Director of Staff Development, Ric Cavanagh, works closely with the EasyLiving caregivers to teach and coach them on Alzheimer’s disease and how to work with clients with memory problems. Through our Aging Wisely care management services, we can assist you and your family in getting a proper diagnostic workup, navigating treatment and care options, coaching you on how to approach concerns with a family member with dementia and more.