If we're honest with ourselves, most of us share at least some worry about developing Alzheimer's disease, the implacable and incurable disorder that starts by causing memory loss and gradually destroys the mind.
Recently, there have been reports of several new tests that can help detect and diagnose Alzheimer's in its earliest stages. There are procedures involving blood tests, behavioral tests, genetic tests-even eye drops. Each of these procedures may be able to provide evidence (although not a definite diagnosis) of early Alzheimer's.
The question is, given that Alzheimer's is currently incurable, why would you want to know if you are in the early stages of this disease? In such a situation, it might seem like ignorance really is bliss.
One part of the answer is that early detection of Alzheimer's disease gives the patient a precious gift of time. Alzheimer's affects not just the patient but often an entire family; early warning gives everyone time to make plans for the future, before the disease really sets in.
But there is another reason why it is worth being tested for Alzheimer's: Often the memory lapses and other symptoms associated with Alzheimer's disease are mimicked by other syndromes. These can be other forms of dementia such as vascular dementia (see our article, "Vascular Dementia") or other conditions such as depression (see our article,"Depression and Memory"), type II diabetes, viral infections, hypothyroidism, and even some widely-prescribed medications. The good news is that, once identified, many of these conditions can be treated or even cured. An Alzheimer's test might actually rule out Alzheimer's disease, revealing that some other condition is causing the symptoms-and increasing the chance that correct treatment will be started.
Of course, many people actually do have Alzheimer's disease. Currently, in the United States, all the drugs currently approved for Alzheimer's disease treat the symptoms, not the underlying disease (see our story, "The New Alzheimer's Drugs"). These drugs may be able to slow a patient's decline, but won't reverse it. Therefore, it's important to identify Alzheimer's disease as early as possible so that medication can be started right away, so that the patient can maintain a relatively high level of cognitive function for as long as possible. Once again, the importance of early diagnosis is clear.
If you or someone you know has memory problems that are interfering with daily life, don't avoid a medical exam just because you're frightened that the diagnosis will be Alzheimer's. It may be the case that examination will reveal a different, treatable cause underlying the memory problems. And the earlier the cause is detected, the more chance that treatment will be effective.
Your doctor or health care professional will be able to tell you more about testing for Alzheimer's disease, and should also be able to identify other health factors that may be responsible for memory loss. Knowing the causes behind memory loss may be better than living with the worry.
Sincerely, Catherine E. Myers
Memory Disorders Project at Rutgers-Newark
Copyright © 2002 Memory Loss and the Brain