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Diagnosing Alzheimer's Early

Experts disagree on the value of testing

In a recent international survey, nearly nine in 10 Americans said if they were experiencing memory loss and confusion, they'd go to the doctor to find out if the cause was Alzheimer's.

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New tests Alzheimers

Traditional methods — blood tests, brain scans — still can not conclusively diagnose Alzheimer's. — Photo by Todd Warnock/Corbis

The survey, released in July, didn't ask what people would expect to get from that visit to the doctor. But results did offer a hint: Nearly 60 percent of Americans said they believe there's a reliable medical test that can tell them if they have Alzheimer's; and close to half believe there is now an effective treatment to slow the progression of the disease.

Unfortunately, neither of those things is true — at least not yet. No medical test for Alzheimer's is widely available, and the few drugs used to treat it can temporarily help with some symptoms but don't halt the disease itself.

So the survey results were surprising. "We thought a very substantial number of people would say that they were not sure they would go for an evaluation," says Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health, which led the survey along with a nonprofit group.

The public's apparent misconception may stem from a flurry of publicity about Alzheimer's diagnosis, as researchers announce exciting strides toward a reliable test and drug companies vie to bring the first diagnostic tests to market.

In April the Alzheimer's Association and the National Institute on Aging announced new guidelines for diagnosing the disease. These included recommendations for how to use the new "biomarkers" tests that measure two proteins, beta-amyloid and tau, which make up brain "plaques" and "tangles," the signature features of Alzheimer's.

This represents "a special moment in the history of neurology and psychiatry," says Allen J. Frances, M.D., former chair of psychiatry at Duke University. Pinpointing the biological signs of any mental disorder has eluded scientists for decades. Before these tests, Alzheimer's could be confirmed only by an autopsy exam of the brain.

But scientists don't yet understand exactly what various results of biomarker tests mean for each patient or how they can be used to predict a patient's future. While beta-amyloid plaques are present in the brains of all Alzheimer's patients, not everyone with these plaques will go on to develop the disease. Because of such uncertainties, the new guidelines do not recommend the tests be used routinely to diagnose Alzheimer's outside of research settings.

Next: Experts are increasingly advocating early diagnosis. >>

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