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Why does it matter with Alzheimer's if you get an early diagnosis?

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

It's human to want to avoid bad news. When the bad news may be that you or a loved one has an incurable disease, especially Alzheimer's, people often say they'd rather not know. But these days, there are medications that can be prescribed in the early stages of the disease that help many people put off the worst symptoms for months or even years. Denial and avoidance are not advised when dementia is suspected.

A decade ago, when my mother-in-law came in the door from a drive to a local grocery story--one she had frequented for decades--and announced to me that she'd gotten lost on the way home, I was puzzled. I knew she was slowing down. However, I was focused on her husband, my father-in-law, with whom I'd been sitting. He was dying. I also was the primary caregiver to several other elders. I was scrambling to give care but was not yet educated about different types of dementia.

During this last decade, I've followed breaking news about Alzheimer's disease, and now realize that my mother-in-law was exhibiting a sign of early Alzheimer's. Even if I had been on top of Alzheimer's issues at the time, there wasn't much that could have been done. The idea at the time was that the only way to know if someone has Alzheimer's or another type of dementia would be through a brain biopsy after death. Besides, nothing could be done, medically, to improve their quality of life.

Dementia, Alzheimer's, and Quality of Life

That, thankfully, has changed. There are several drugs in common use now that can, for many people, slow the cognitive slide into later stages of Alzheimer's. The drugs, under many brand names, are used alone or in combination with other drug therapies. There are side effects, and for some the side effects are not tolerable. However, for most people, if the family closely monitors the person with Alzheimer's for any needed medication adjustment, these new drugs can help slow the disease. There are people who manage to enjoy family and friends, continue hobbies and even work for a longer time. This is progress.

New studies are always popping up that contradict previous studies. This is normal as pharmaceutical companies scramble to find drugs that will cure or prevent the disease. Some newer studies, if true, will throw off the current thought that protein plaques and tangles in the brain are the cause of Alzheimer's. If this proves true, then the whole focus of finding a cure will change.

However, research continues to find answers. Because of our aging population, this disease is considered an epidemic in some scientific circles. Prevention and cure are a high priority for many researchers and drug companies. None of the uncertainty at this time about causes or cures should keep a person exhibiting signs of Alzheimer's disease from getting a diagnosis. The time gained from new medications can, for most people, be good quality time.

Dementia Is Not Just Old Age

A cure may or may not be found in time to help you, but you want to have the best life you can right now. So, get to a doctor if you or a loved one is showing signs of dementia. Have a through physical exam to rule out other causes of memory issues or disorientation. Make sure the doctor checks all current medications, as side effects from these often cause problems. You may want to ask about a PET scan or other brain scan.

You should get a thorough interview about your way of life, what you did for a living, your education and other issues because much of what the doctor may base the diagnosis on is about changes in how a person operates. If you never could subtract backwards by sevens, tell the doctor.

If you were a math whiz and could have done that test in your sleep, but now you can't, that will be a sign that there could be a problem. If your family doctor brushes off your request, saying this is just old age, seek a second opinion from a neurologist or a geriatric psychiatrist.

Whatever you do, get diagnosed. If you have Alzheimer's, there are medications that can help. If you don't, you can find out what other problems are giving your trouble and get them taken care of.