Caring Currents

Is It Hard to Get an Early Alzheimer's Diagnosis?

Last updated: Aug 29, 2008

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You notice certain lapses in memory or behavior. You worry. You suggest a check-up. You get stonewalled. Sound familiar?

A fascinating new report from the Alzheimer's Association, based on interviews with more than 300 people who have early-stage Alzheimer's, sheds some light on why: A rampant negative stigma about the disease, much of it rooted in myths and misperceptions, especially regarding what the early stage is like.

But what if you do get your parent or family member to have that checkup? How likely is he or she to get an accurate diagnosis? The past decade has finally shed a great deal of light on early-stage Alzheimer's, and the must-read "Voices of Alzheimer's" report brings up many issues deserving deeper attention. But the problem of getting a diagnosis hasn't been widely discussed before.

To be sure, fairly accurate screenings are available. Still, coming to a reliable diagnosis can be a hard journey because:

  • Alzheimer's in a living person is only diagnosed by process of elimination, which takes time and testing.
  • Uncertainty and distress during the process can create anxiety.
  • Early Alzheimer's can be mistaken for depression or other conditions.
  • Some physicians dismiss early symptoms because of their own fears of the disease or because they're better trained to focus on other conditions of the elderly.

The report says: "In this bright age of science, we still don't have a defining way of making a diagnosis early that says, 'This is Alzheimer's, and let's cope with it.'"

The good news: Once Alzheimer's is diagnosed and accepted, most of those afflicted say there are many benefits to having an early diagnosis -- relief from the vague wondering, access to resources and medications that can help, and an ability to plan (and urge others to be evaluated, too).

Image by Flickr user Subconsci Productions, used under the Creative Commons attribution license.