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Is It Alzheimer’s?

Every 67 seconds someone in the United States develops Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Yet those statistics don’t tell the whole story: there are many people who go undiagnosed, believing that the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease are normal aging, and then there are people whose memory loss may not be dementia.

“Of the estimated more than five million people living with Alzheimer’s disease, roughly half do not receive a diagnosis,” said Heather Snyder, PhD, Director of Medical & Scientific Operations at the Alzheimer’s Association. “One of the challenges that we have is to continue to raise awareness and talk about Alzheimer’s disease so that we can drive people to talk to their health care provider when there is a concern.”

Dr. Snyder explained that many people mistake the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease as normal aging.

“It’s always interesting how many people think that it’s a normal part of aging,” she said.

A recent report released by the Alzheimer’s Association shows that only 45 percent of people with Alzheimer’s disease or their caregivers are told their diagnosis by their doctor. In addition, the disclosure rate dropped to 33 percent when the data excluded information shared with caregivers.

Time for a Checkup

Memory problems can occur in people who do not have dementia. Some of the causes for memory lapses can be:

  • side effect from medication

  • chronic stress

  • malfunctioning thyroid

  • traumatic brain injury

  • ·normal aging

  • hearing problems

  • depression

“Typically if an individual goes in for a full workup with cognitive screening, including a blood panel that can look for a hormonal imbalance or dietary issues, they can get an accurate diagnosis,” said Dr. Snyder. “It’s important to go through that process to find out whether it’s Alzheimer’s or not.”

In addition, forgetfulness is not the only sign of Alzheimer’s. Mood changes can be one sign of the disease, as can difficulty managing financial matters. There is often a subtle difference between changes in thinking and behavior as people age and the early stage symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.

Think About It

It is possible to be misdiagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. One study (the Honolulu-Asia Aging Study is an ongoing study that began in 1991) found there was a misdiagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease one-third of the time.

“There could be multiple things going on,” said Dr. Snyder. “If you have concerns about the care you or a loved one is receiving or about changes that may be going, get a second opinion.”

There are cases of people who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and after further testing were found to have a treatable illness, but these are not widespread.

“There are local chapters of the Alzheimer’s Association that people can visit and if they are questioning their process they can talk about what they’ve gone through with others,” Dr. Sndyer said.

An early and accurate diagnosis has benefits to the individual who has the disease as well as their family. The National Institute on Aging lists the following advantages of an early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease:

  • an opportunity to make plans for the future

  • a chance to choose living arrangements

  • a time for taking care of financial and legal affairs

  • begin treatment to help preserve function for some time

  • develop support networks

An early diagnosis has the potential to stabilize a person’s quality of life during the early stages of the disease.

Learn more about risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease, how it is diagnosed, how to participate in clinical trials, and more at the National Institute on Aging website or the Alzheimer’s Association website.
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