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By Jennifer Bradley, Staff Writer
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.