A couple days ago a friend of mine called almost in tears: “I did such-and-such, and I’ve never done such-and-such before. Do I have early-onset Alzheimer’s?”
I laughed. “The thing about Alzheimer’s,” I said, “is that they say not to confuse normal aging with Alzheimer’s, and then they say Alzheimer’s hits long before any recognizable symptoms become evident, so you have to look for signs early on.”
So I want to know: are we to be concerned about Alzheimer’s as soon as we lose our keys for the first time, or should we just laugh it off and look at the bright side of life all through the aging process?
Recently, a new mini-test was developed for the easy detection of Alzheimer’s. It’s called the AD8. This 8-question test is supposed to bring a diagnostic tool into the hands of primary care doctors so that Alzheimer’s can be detected earlier and therefore treated more effectively.
The problem is, there is no effective treatment for Alzheimer’s yet. So what, pray tell, are we doing finding new ways to diagnose this disease when there is no treatment and when the disease itself is not even clearly defined?
When we first brought Dad to live with us, we set him up with a primary care doctor who ran him through the standard Alzheimer’s test: remember these three things; tell me the date; where do you live; what floor are you on; draw a clock that says three thirty; etc. Dad got every single question wrong, and the doctor proclaimed, “You don’t have Alzheimer’s.”
I wanted to laugh. I think it was relief that a doctor would buck the system and refrain from offering perhaps a true but useless diagnosis given the lack of any effective treatment.
Later, we took Dad to a neurologist who got through three of the standard questions and suggested he try Aricept.
We gave Dad the five-week trial supply. It profited him nothing.
I’m not saying that we should refrain from diagnosing diseases. From his neurologist Dad also got a diagnosis of Parkinson’s, and as I’ve pointed out in an earlier post, this diagnosis (though it came late in the progression of the disease) was tremendously helpful in understanding Dad’s behavior and in relieving his sense of guilt. The medication he took for Parkinson’s did him no good either, but the diagnosis itself was helpful—perhaps as much for us, his caregivers, as for him.
But Alzheimer’s is a tricky beast. There are some well-known Alzheimer’s victims like Richard Taylor and Dottie (of the Alzheimer’s Reading Room fame) who are now under fire as possible Alzheimer’s mis-diagnoses. How can anyone have Alzheimer’s for six or ten years and show no decline, or even show improvement over time? It is not the subject’s truthfulness that is questioned but the accuracy of the initial diagnosis (heaven forbid we should think Alzheimer’s can be stayed by sheer willpower—of the sufferer and/or caregiver. That would mean we don’t really need expensive meds).
Is diagnosis of value when there are so many causes of dementia that could result in a false positive? And are the statistics of any value when they are repeatedly misquoted? We keep using the phrase “there are 5.3 million Americans with Alzheimer’s” when the correct statistic is “5.3 million Americans with Alzheimer’s and other dementias“.
One last bit of datum against the usefulness of Alzheimer’s diagnoses: in the U.S., whites tend to get diagnosed and treated more frequently than Hispanics, African Americans, and Asians. Whites seek out professional medical care, while Latinos, African Americans and Asians with Alzheimer’s tend to stay home and be cared for by family. Yet whites with Alzheimer’s die sooner than their non-white counterparts.
If earlier diagnosis is helpful, where is the evidence?