Defining Early Changes
For years Alzheimer's disease could not be diagnosed until the person died and an autopsy revealed an abundance of plaques and tangles in the brain. However, scientists and clinicians around the world have been developing effective techniques to diagnose AD even in its early stages. The diagnostic approaches consider a range of factors, including the results of physical exams, changes in performance on periodic neuropsychological tests (tests that measure memory, language and math skills, and other cognitive abilities), subtle changes in behavior over time, and sometimes brain scans.
Today, neurologists can be fairly confident of a diagnosis of clinically probable Alzheimer's disease. Studies have shown that specialized memory centers or doctors experienced in neurodegenerative diseases can diagnose AD with up to 90 percent accuracy, an impressive feat considering the complexity of the disease and the fact that, in the early stages, it can be difficult to distinguish from other types of age-related cognitive decline.
Diagnostic techniques are so important because the earlier that physicians diagnose AD, the better they may be able to treat the symptoms and track the disease process. Early diagnosis can also help spur people with memory problems to make the most of their abilities and interests while they still can. It also helps their families adjust to changing roles and realities and plan for the future.
Neurologist Dr. Ron Petersen has been a pioneer in classifying and diagnosing different forms of early-stage memory loss. He is the director of the Mayo Clinic's Alzheimer's Disease Research Center in Rochester, Minnesota and Jacksonville, Florida. The Mayo Clinic center is one of a network of twenty-nine Alzheimer's Disease Research Centers around the country funded by the National Institute on Aging and specializing in research on Alzheimer's disease.
Back in 1994, Dr. Ron Petersen and colleagues at the Mayo Clinic diagnosed the beginnings of Alzheimer's disease in former president Ronald Reagan. President and Mrs. Reagan were open with each other—and the public—about the fact that the former president's forgetfulness was an early stage of AD. "This diagnosis was important to them. They felt that for the community and for the world at large, their recognition might show that if the president of the United States can develop Alzheimer's disease, anybody can. By encouraging people not to ignore possible signs of change, they made an important contribution to society," says Dr. Petersen.
Previous: The Stages of Alzheimer's Disease
Excerpted from THE ALZHEIMER'S PROJECT: MOMENTUM IN SCIENCE, published by Public Affairs, www.publicaffairsbooks.com.
In This Section
Momentum in Science: The Supplementary Series
- Understanding and Attacking Alzheimer's 12 min
- How Far We Have Come in Alzheimer's Research 15 min
- Identifying Mild Cognitive Impairment 20 min
- The Role of Genetics in Alzheimer's 12 min
- Advances in Brain Imaging 11 min
- Looking Into the Future of Alzheimer's 6 min
- The Connection Between Insulin and Alzheimer's 21 min
- Inflammation, the Immune System, and Alzheimer's 29 min
- The Benefit of Diet and Exercise in Alzheimer's 16 min
- Cognitive Reserve: What the Religious Orders Study is Revealing about Alzheimer's 20 min
- Searching for an Alzheimer's Cure: The Story of Flurizan 30 min
- The Pulse of Drug Development 15 min
- The DeMoe Family: Early-Onset Alzheimer's Genetics 25 min
- The Nanney/Felts Family: Late-Onset Alzheimer's Genetics 20 min
- The Quest for Biomarkers 17 min
Video: Inside the Brain: Unraveling the Mystery of Alzheimer's Disease
This 4-minute captioned video shows the progression of Alzheimer's disease in the brain.
Inside the Brain: An Interactive Tour
The Brain Tour explains how the brain works and how Alzheimer's affects it.
Alzheimer's Disease: Unraveling the Mystery
This book explains what AD is, describes the main areas in which researchers are working, and highlights new approaches for helping families and friends care for people with AD.
- About The Scientists
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- Rapid advances in our knowledge about AD have led to the development of promising new drugs and treatment strategies. However, before these new strategies can be used in clinical practice, they must be shown to work in people. Advances in prevention and treatment are only possible thanks to volunteers who participate in clinical trials.
- Among those touched by Alzheimer's (excluding self), nearly one-third provide support as a friend or relative, another 3% provide support as a healthcare professional, and the remaining two-thirds provide no support to the person suffering from Alzheimer's. When support is provided, it most often entails emotional support, followed by care-giving support. While small in comparison, more than one person in ten is providing financial support. Read more.