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The First Alzheimer's City in America?

New initiative aims to screen all residents for memory loss

Alzheimers Test, Columbus Georgia


Participants in a new study will receive a memory number, which will be monitored to measure cognitive decline.

A new Alzheimer's screening initiative could make Columbus, Ga., a focal point in the fight against the disease. A meeting recently launched the three-year citywide Columbus Memory Project, which is intended to screen residents for the neurological illness. 

Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson endorses the project, saying it will make Columbus the world's first city to screen every senior citizen for memory loss. It also enjoys support from state and local chapters of the Alzheimer’s Association. Neurologist Jonathan Liss of the Columbus Memory Center is spearheading the project, funding it with $100,000 of his own money.

The project has recruited 1,600 people so far and ultimately hopes to test 20,000 area residents age 65 and older for memory loss and genetic risk, and offer them free yearly memory testing. Adults 55 to 75 are eligible for the genetic screening tests.

Participants over age 65 can take the memory tests with the goal of providing them with a "memory number" that will then be monitored to watch for decline, with the hopes of identifying cognitive impairment early and fighting its advance. While no medical cure for Alzheimer's is available, project participants can choose to be connected with clinical trials and given information on how to potentially slow progress of the disease. As part of the project, “Ask the Doctor” town halls will be offered on a regular basis to address memory-related questions.

The DNA test detects whether a person has the ApoE e4 gene, which raises the chance of having Alzheimer’s disease, although having the gene does not guarantee that the person will develop the condition. Study participants who want to find out their gene status are required to meet with a certified genetic counselor via Skype to verify that they are emotionally stable enough to learn about their genetic risk.

“It is possible that Alzheimer’s disease will be cured in our lifetime; medical science is that close to a meaningful breakthrough,” Mayor Tomlinson said in a statement. “By learning more and participating in this study, Columbus can be ‘cure city.’ We are going to assist this public health, nonprofit effort by spreading the word of how our citizens can help themselves and help chart a course to a cure.”

Critics note potential issues, including medical risks associated with clinical trials and the emotional impact of early screenings. “One of the things about screening is that it tends to lead to subsequent testing,” Gilbert Welch tells WebMD. He is a professor of medicine at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Research in Hanover, N.H. “For real people, suddenly that starts to involve real anxiety and real money, which comes out-of-pocket and only adds to anxiety.”

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