Researchers Wrestle with Earlier Detection of Alzheimer’s 

Researchers at New York University (NYU) recently unveiled a brain-scan computer program that can quickly and accurately measure inactivity in a key region of the brain that may predict the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. 

Alzheimer’s currently affects 4.5 million people in the United States and it has been predicted that by 2050, 14 million people will have the disease, which symptoms include memory loss, wild mood swings, unpredictable behavior and difficulty speaking. 

The recent NYU School of Medicine findings were presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference of Prevention of Dementia held in Washington in June 2005. 

According to the study, which was led by NYU researcher Dr. Lisa Mosconi and her colleagues, lower energy usage in the part of the brain known as the hippocampus correctly signaled the development of Alzheimer’s or related memory impairments 85 percent of the time. 

“This is the first demonstration that reduced…activity in the hippocampus may be used to help predict future Alzheimer’s disease,” said Mosconi. “Although our findings need to be replicated in other studies, our technique offers the possibility that we will be able to screen for Alzheimer’s in individuals who aren’t cognitively impaired.” 

Researchers believe they can now accurately show the development of Alzheimer’s disease nine years in advance of symptoms. 

This latest advance in the study of the disease, however, raises intriguing ethical questions for the medical community. Without a cure, is screening for Alzheimer’s beneficial or even ethical? If technology exists that can accurately project the onset of Alzheimer’s, how soon should a patient be told the debilitating disease is approaching when a cure has not been developed yet? 

And what should be the ground rules medical professionals to follow when it comes to the possible early detection of this disease without a cure? 

Does Early Detection Make Sense? 

There is still debate over the accuracy of screening for Alzheimer’s and the cost of long-term care once a patient is diagnosed with the disease. Opinions also vary on the benefits of early detection. 

A recent study of over 3,000 patients in Indianapolis indicated that early detection might not be as beneficial as proponents would argue. 

Citing the accuracy of early indicators and the cost of screenings, researchers suggest that routine tests for dementia, and in its most common form, Alzheimer’s, could prove troublesome, according to a research study published in the July 2005 issue of Journal of General Internal Medicine. 

Of the over 3,340 patients age 65 or older that were part of the study, thirteen percent showed signs of dementia, but only half of those patients agreed to return for additional tests. 

Of those patients that did return for follow-up visits, nearly 47 percent were eventually diagnosed with dementia, while 33 percent had some cognitive impairment, and 20 percent had no dementia at all. 

Researchers estimate that each dementia test costs $128 and doctors would need to spend on average of $3,983 on tests before a single patient is diagnosed with dementia. These factors make the cost and practicality of such treatment prohibitive for many people. 

However, Dr. Renée Beard, a doctoral fellow at the University of Illinois who spent a year observing and interviewing patients undergoing cognitive evaluations, believes there is merit to routine screenings and early detection of dementia. 

“Early detection of Alzheimer’s has granted researchers access to a population of people who are able to articulate their experiences and needs. By understanding the experiences of being tested and living with memory loss, we can significantly improve clinical practice, said Beard. “It is critical to continue exploring the individual, social, and bioethical consequences of increasingly earlier diagnoses.” 

Free information and help resources are available to families of Alzheimer's sufferers through The Alzheimer's Disease Education & Referral Center, Sponsored by The National Institute on Aging.

Click the attached links for more information or call: 800.438.4380

Patients in Beard’s study expressed some positive benefits to being diagnosed early, such a better ability to plan for the future, heightened focus on what is important to them and receiving access to resources such as support groups and research studies. 

William Theis, scientific director of the Alzheimer’s Association, noting the difference between research studies and clinical diagnoses, however, strongly supports early detection of the disease. 

The Alzheimer’s Association supports research to eliminate the disease through research to enhance care and support for individuals stricken with disease, their families and caregivers. 

In an interview with American Retiree, Thies said, “At this point, early detection can only be determined by clinical surveillance into the cognitive functions of patients. We are very excited by this new technique,” he said referring to the New York University study. 

“Early identification helps caregivers and families understand that Alzheimer’s is a disease and with detection, they can better educate themselves about treatment and support available to them,” he continued. “Specifically, patients will be better able to plan for the later stages of their lives, both medically and economically.” 

Theis added, “Some of the patients we have worked with take the diagnosis as an impetus to realize a lifelong goal, like travel.” 

Stay Active, Stay Healthy 

While genetics do play a role in Alzheimer’s and a cure is yet to be developed, medications and neuro-psychiatric treatments have been effective in delaying the disease’s onset. For patients not yet diagnosed, simple lifestyle modifications can improve the chances of realizing a future without the disease. 

To that end, the Alzheimer’s Association has developed “Maintain Your Brain”, an educational program to help the general public remain healthier and offer tips that may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. 

Theis noted that while staying mentally active, avoiding social isolation, while exercising and eating diets rich in fruits and vegetables are simple, they are significant steps to keep your brain healthier as you age. 

Click the chart to visit The Alzheimer's Association Web Site 

Provided by Alzheimer's Association