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Early Diagnois

By Jennifer Bradley, Staff Writer
(Page 1 of 3)

Forgetfulness is normal. Everyone has bouts of it; and even more with age. Whether a name, address or appointment, these facts slip through a personís mind easily. For someone with Alzheimerís disease, they donít return; thatís the difference. The most common early symptom is a short-term memory loss.

The Alzheimerís Association agrees that early detection is crucial to long-term management and symptom maintenance. According to the National Institute on Aging, ďAlzheimerís disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually even the ability to carry out the simplest tasks.Ē Researchers today have hope, however, that catching it early can prevent most of the worst damage to a loved one.

When an early diagnosis is made, a caregiver becomes more of a task manager. A loved one will need help remembering appointments, names, medications, managing money and other simple planning efforts. A caregiver is the best encourager a loved one has. You must be a friend and a shoulder to lean on, as well as an observer. You are the person to go to events with, and help your loved one communicate when they canít find the words. At some point, family and friends will need to be told. Lifeís average days that included what used to be menial tasks will no longer be taken for granted. Recognizing the symptoms earlier rather than later can make the difference in the number of good days and number of bad days in the first stage of the disease.

The Diagnosis Process

If you suspect your loved one may be dealing with more than simple memory loss, the most important thing is not to ignore it. Hoping it may get better, or thinking itís just a phase, could only lead to late diagnosis if in fact the situation proves to be more serious.  Remember, too, that there can be many treatable causes for memory loss not related to Alzheimerís and the sooner your loved one sees the doctor, the better the outcome for everyone.

With a physical examination, doctors may test a loved one for reflexes, muscle tone and strength, rising and walking, sight and hearing, coordination and balance. Lab tests rule out any other possibilities for the memory loss and confusion, such as thyroid disorders or vitamin deficiencies. While basic mental status testing can take just 10 minutes, a doctor may want more extensive neuropsychological tests done. These can take several hours to complete, but are helpful if the medical professional does suspect early onset Alzheimerís as a diagnosis. These tests show the functionality of a loved one compared to that of the average person their age.

Brain imaging also is a popular diagnosis option in use today. From CT scans to MRIs and PET scans, brain imaging allows medical professionals to pinpoint abnormalities and also specific changes known to relate to Alzheimerís disease. These are very important if the diagnosis is in fact Alzheimerís. Brain imaging gives insight to the stage of the disease, the rate of progression and shape, position and volume of brain tissue. The brain of a person with Alzheimerís is different than that of someone without the disease.

New Tests on the Horizon

As scientific understanding about the nature of Alzheimerís disease has progressed, so has the urgency to find definitive tests to diagnose and manage the disease. Certain genes have been identified as being associated with Alzheimerís disease; but while genetic tests give insight to the possibility of Alzheimerís, they donít confirm it. Also the only genes isolated so far have been linked to so called early-onset Alzheimerís, which is only associated with about five percent of the cases occuring in people under age 65. The other 95 percent are diagnosed with the more common late-onset form. The risk of developing the late-onset form is still not yet understood, but believed to be caused by a variety of factors including environment, genetics and lifestyle factors.


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