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Experts Propose New Ways to Define (and One Day Treat) Alzheimer’s

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For the past several years there has been little if any obvious change in the way doctors diagnose Alzheimer’s disease. Typically, a patient starts showing some observable signs and symptoms, and they come to their doctor for neurological testing. By the time the familiar symptoms of dementia begin to show, the disease has already progressed to the point where treatment is virtually useless. The damage within the brain has already been done.

But now, according to this story from the ABC News website (a story which was also reported in multiple news outlets during the past week), doctors and government scientists are proposing a dramatic redefinition of Alzheimer’s disease, one which could significantly increase the number of people – most currently living without symptoms – diagnosed with this frightening form of dementia. “Government and other scientists are proposing a new way to define Alzheimer’s disease,” ABC News reports, “basing it on [hidden] biological signs, such as brain changes, rather than memory loss and other symptoms of dementia that are used today.” The reason for this change, which was recommended by a panel of experts in the publication Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, is to facilitate earlier and more objective diagnosis of dementia, using tools like brain scans and spinal fluid analysis. By studying patients who may not exhibit any actual disease symptoms, and by starting treatment earlier, doctors hope one day to find a reliable cure – or at least a way to slow dementia’s inexorable progress.

But regardless of what advance tests are eventually developed, ABC News reports, “the new definition will have a startling effect: Many more people will be considered to have Alzheimer’s. That, say the experts, is because the hidden biological signs of Alzheimer’s disease can show up 15 to 20 years before actual observable symptoms do.” In the words of Dr. Clifford Jack of the Mayo Clinic, “The numbers will increase dramatically. There are a lot more cognitively normal people who have the pathology in the brain who will now be counted as having Alzheimer’s disease.”

Dementia of one form or another affects roughly 50 million people worldwide, ABC News reports, with Alzheimer’s disease being the most common form. Alzheimer’s sufferers in the U.S. alone currently number about 5.7 million, a number which is projected to skyrocket in the coming decades. (More than 96 percent of those sufferers are 65 and older.) The cost of caring for those with dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association ( is a staggering $277 billion. But if you project those totals ahead to the year 2050, the outlook is truly sobering, to say the least: the number of Americans with dementia is projected to approach 14 million, even under the present symptom-based definition, and the annual cost of care could easily top $1 trillion.  Many experts feel those numbers are economically and socially unsustainable, which is one factor driving the search for a cure.

For now, however, there is no cure. “Dozens of hoped-for treatments have failed,” ABC News states, “and doctors think one reason may be that the studies enrolled patients after too much brain damage had already occurred.” In the words of one neuroscientist from the Institute on Aging, “By the time that you have the diagnosis of the disease, it’s very late” – often too late. As is the case with cancer, the earlier treatment can begin, the better, which is why this shift in the definition of Alzheimer’s disease might trigger a more aggressive approach to early diagnosis. Doctor Jack from the Mayo Clinic told ABC News that experts believe “about one-third of people over 70 who show no thinking problems actually have brain signs that suggest Alzheimer’s.” As the theory goes, if those people could have been diagnosed and treated 15 or 20 years earlier, with new treatment regimens still under development, it could cause a profound reduction in the rate of debilitating dementia among the elderly.

One of the more encouraging developments in Alzheimer’s disease testing occurred a few years ago, the ABC News article says, when researchers began to develop brain scans and spinal fluid tests to look for biomarkers that point to Alzheimer’s, in much the same way that blood sugar readings can indicate diabetes. These scans and tests measure certain forms of the two proteins that form “plaques and tangles in the brain” which are characteristic of the illness, and they can also detect signs of nerve injury, degeneration and brain shrinkage. Doctors can then trace these biomarkers over time, from early detection through mild impairment and eventually debilitating Alzheimer’s disease.

So knowing that, what should you or a loved one do with this new information? Is it time to seek out a doctor who will perform some of these new tests and scans for you?

ABC News says that’s premature. “You might find a doctor willing to order [the tests], but spinal fluid tests are somewhat invasive, and brain scans can cost up to $6,000. Insurance usually does not pay because they’re considered experimental outside of research.” And besides, there’s presently nothing you can do with the information because there’s no cure. However, say the experts, there’s one way you can make a real contribution to the search for a cure, and that’s by taking part in one of the many scientific studies of dementia that are currently underway. Doctors particularly need people with family history of dementia but no current symptoms. You can learn more about taking part in a research study at the Alzheimer’s Association website.

If you’re ready to learn more about how to take charge of your retirement – how to protect your assets as you age, avoid becoming a burden to those you love, and escape the trap of being forced against your will into institutional care – AgingOptions is the right resource for you. We invite you to join Rajiv Nagaich at one of our very popular retirement planning workshops which we call LifePlanning Seminars. You’ll discover how you can develop a retirement plan that is truly complete, in which finances, legal affairs, medical coverage, housing choices and family dynamics all work together in seamless harmony. There’s no other plan that does what a LifePlan can do when it comes to ensuring a secure and fruitful retirement.

You’ll find schedules and locations here for our upcoming seminars: then you can register conveniently online or call us this week for assistance. Let us guide you into the retirement you’ve always wanted! We’ll look forward to meeting you soon.

(originally reported at

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