When people hear about the growing number of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia each year, they might understandably be frightened that they or a loved one will also have the illness. Yet with more tools than ever for early detection, there should be less to fear.
“People are nervous today,” said Judy Yaffe, Owner of Homewatch CareGareGivers serving West Springfield and Northampton in Massachusetts. “Every time they turn around they see somebody else with dementia.”
Yaffe’s fearless approach to these concerns is to bring memory screening tools—such as the General Practitioner assessment for Cognition (GPCOG)-- into the community where the simple tests are administered by professionals in nursing homes and churches. “It’s really a baseline to give to a doctor,” she said. In other words, screening tools for dementia are not a diagnosis of a disease.
In fact, Yaffe and her staff have been involved in cases where a screening test uncovered a non-dementia cause for cognitive impairment.
“If they start to become cognitively impaired, it could be medication, it could be thyroid, it could be so many things,” said Kathy Fuller, MSW and a Pathways to Memory educator who administers the simple 7-question GPCOG and other Alzheimer’s screening tests. Fuller adds that a screening test can be handy not just to test for existing cognitive issues, but also provide a primary care doctor with one’s prior cognitive state. “If you got in a car accident and had brain fog, then the doctor would know your status prior to that,” she said.
Early detection of Alzheimer’s and other dementia is now even recognized as so important that The Affordable Care Act includes a provision for Medicare users to get an annual wellness visit during which they discuss concerns about cognitive impairment with their doctor.
“People are not talking to their doctors,” said Carol Steinberg, President of the National Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. “A screening is not a substitute for a doctor’s visit and we do encourage people to go in for a full-scale examination. This is a first step to earlier detection.”
Steinberg said that patients and their doctors may not even be aware of the provision for cognitive impairment review during their annual wellness exam.
Although there is presently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, Steinberg and other experts agree that there are many benefits to early detection—either because dementia is actually ruled out and another cause is found and addressed or because it helps the individual and their family prepare for the changes that come with the illness.
Fuller said that sometimes when they come to an assisted-living facility or other community site to administer a screening test, people are reluctant. “They say, ‘I don’t want to take this’,” she explained. “Then we do the test they are OK with it.”
The GPCOG and other screening tests work best for people who are in the early stage of Alzheimer’s and other dementia. “We found we could not use it with certain levels of dementia,” said Yaffe.
National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month in November is a perfect time to consider a screening test for yourself or a loved one. The National Alzheimer’s Foundation of America sponsors National Memory Screening Day on Nov. 19 at about 2,500 sites across the country. Screenings are conducted by health care professional and typically take about five minutes of time for a face-to-face questionnaire.
“It’s done in a safe environment and it is non-invasive,” said Steinberg. “It’s really important for people to address their memory concerns.”