Soon, new technologies may be used along with new guidelines for diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease, resulting in earlier diagnosis and two to three times as many people diagnosed with the disease (over the 5.3 million Americans who already have it), according to the New York Times.
A drastic rise in the number of Alzheimer’s diagnoses seems like a bad thing, but in actuality, this earlier diagnosis paves the way for improved treatments that could alter the course of the disease by attacking it sooner. Using brain scans, a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease could be made before the obvious symptoms, such as memory loss, appear. This is significant, because many experts say that Alzheimer’s disease actually takes hold up to a decade before these symptoms become apparent.
The National Institute on Aging and the Alzheimer’s Association assembled a panel of experts about a year ago to begin working on new diagnostic guidelines. Currently, patients must already be exhibiting a number of obvious symptoms for a diagnosis to be made, including significant memory impairment and a loss of ability to complete activities of daily living. A definitive diagnosis is currently not possible until after death, when the brain can be examined for the presence of telltale plagues.
Under the new guidelines, a patient could be diagnosed with one of three stages:
- Preclinical disease
- Mild cognitive impairment due to Alzheimer’s disease
- Alzheimer’s dementia
The changes will allow researchers and drug-makers to focus on developing treatments that can used earlier, thus slowing the progression or altering the course of the disease entirely. But earlier diagnosis isn’t without its downsides. An earlier diagnosis is always a less certain diagnosis, meaning a greater margin for misdiagnosis.
Eventually, researchers have hopes of routinely testing people in their 50s for Alzheimer’s biomarkers, according to Dr. Paul Aisen, Alzheimer’s researcher for the University of California in San Diego, and a panel member. If tests show that a patient is developing Alzheimer’s, the patient could be started on drugs that would halt the development of the disease.
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