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Should you get screened for Alzheimer's disease?

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I was at a networking meeting at the Narrows Glen in Tacoma the other day and someone brought up a recent 60 Minute story on a family with a genetic predisposition to early onset Alzheimer’s disease.  All the individuals in the group work with (or in my case write about) seniors.  That meant that we all had some strong opinions about the disease and about what can be done about it.  Then one member of our group asked if you could be tested for predisposition to Alzheimer’s disease.  She wanted to know if she was likely to get the disease.  I’ve written before about why I don’t think it’s a good idea.  So, I rattled off the top two reasons I don’t believe you should get tested.

The first is that you can’t do anything about it as there isn’t a cure.

The second is that if you wanted to purchase Long-Term Care insurance, getting tested would surely jeopardize your ability to get it.

But, said this other individual, I already have Long-Term Care insurance and rather than bothering me that I had it but couldn’t do anything about it, it would be good to know so I could prepare my family and myself.

I hadn’t thought about it that way because to me, knowing would mean that instead of writing off a bout of forgetfulness to inattention or busyness,  I’d place the blame solely at the door of Alzheimer’s and then I’d worry.

So that got me to thinking.  Does it make sense yet to consider testing for dementia if you’re not showing signs of it and there still isn’t a cure.  I’d like to think that great minds think alike because the Washington Post just ran exactly that sort of question about whether or not it makes sense to be tested.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a group of medical experts, looked at the pros and cons of screening for Alzheimer’s disease.  What they found unsurprisingly is that the evidence supporting early testing still isn’t there, at least for people under the age of 65.  For those older than 65, some screening tools can be useful but again they found that for individuals that weren’t showing any symptoms of the disease, there doesn’t appear to be a clear benefit to the screening.

Even those with poor results on a screening test may not be showing an indication of dementia but could be exhibiting symptoms of other medical conditions that cause poor memory issues.   The researchers felt that those individuals that chose to have a screening should do so in a medical facility (rather than a mall or health fair) so that medical personnel can look at a patient’s history to see if one of those other conditions applied.

The other argument for not having testing done is that screening doesn’t improve the care of those with dementia.

On the other hand, for those members of families that have shown a predisposition to having Alzheimer’s disease, an early test can help create a baseline for future tests.  The final reason for having the screening done early is that the current list of drugs approved for dementia, are most effective early in the stage of the disease.

Whichever way you fall on the decision, there are steps you can take to prepare in case you do eventually end up with Alzheimer’s.  Make sure that you have your estate planning in order (if you don’t know what that means, please come to a free seminar about LifePlanning), have a conversation with your family about your end-of-life decisions and talk to your doctor about what you can do to cut your chances of getting Alzheimer’s.

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