Alzheimer’s disease has gained a reputation as a disorder the medical profession can’t do anything about. As someone who has made this disease my life’s work, I’m calling for an end to the underdiagnosis and undertreatment of this disease that is currently the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.1Lack of attention to early Alzheimer’s disease is a tragedy because there are things we can do to help people who are starting to experience memory loss, as well as the people who care for them. Although no cure exists, there are treatment options for those living with Alzheimer’s disease that can help to slow the severity of their symptoms, especially if they are diagnosed early.
According to a survey conducted in the United States, nearly one-half of patients with Alzheimer’s disease are already in the moderate to severe stages of the disease by the time they are diagnosed—and generally, patients with moderate Alzheimer’s disease experience the fastest rate of decline. But dementia from Alzheimer’s continues to be underdiagnosed and underreported.The closer scientists come to developing a cure for Alzheimer’s, the more they tout the necessity of being able to identify the disease earlier in its course.Catching Alzheimer’s in its earlier stages can offer a host of benefits to both a caregiver and their loved one.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, earlier detection of the disease can give seniors and their families the time to process a diagnosis and make plans for the future. Also, the only available therapies to address the symptoms of Alzheimer’s are only effective for people in the mild to moderate stages.Unfortunately, 48 percent of doctors say the Alzheimer’s is often diagnosed too late for existing therapies to be effective, according to an international study conducted by Eli Lilly and Company.The pharmaceutical developer interviewed almost 1,000 physicians from the United States, France, Japan, Italy and the United Kingdom to figure out just what is that keeps interfering with timely diagnoses.
They came up with three main stumbling blocks:
- Inefficient screening methods: It’s difficult to find what you’re looking for if you don’t know where to start. Sixty-five percent of physicians identified inefficient testing methods as the primary impediment to Alzheimer’s diagnosis. No one test has been developed that can definitively diagnose Alzheimer’s in a living person. Most physicians use a combination of: patient history, physical screenings (brain imaging and blood tests) and mental functioning assessments to determine whether they believe a senior is suffering from the disease.
- Communication breakdown: Too many doctors are waiting for elderly patients or their caregivers to make the first move when it comes to discussing Alzheimer’s. The vast majority of physicians (75 percent) said that caregivers and seniors were the ones who first brought up the issue of the memory-robbing illness. Even more alarming, nearly half of those who voiced their concerns only did so only after they had suspected Alzheimer’s for some time.
- Stigma and denial: Patient denial and social stigma were cited as the top two issues that made discussing Alzheimer’s difficult for doctors. People in France and the UK appeared to attach the greatest amount of stigma to the disease. Physicians listed the common Alzheimer’s stigmas voiced by seniors and their caregivers: shame, isolation, and loss of personal freedom.
While caregivers and their loved ones can’t do much to speed up the process of finding an effective diagnostic test, there is a lot they can do to improve communication with doctors and remove the stigma associated with Alzheimer’s disease.