New clues to early diagnosis of Alzheimer’sPublished 4:59pm Monday, October 24, 2011
Alzheimer’s… just the mention of the word creates an emotional response in most of us.
Today, more than 5.4 million Americans and 35 million people worldwide are known to have Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia.
One of the major challenges regarding Alzheimer’s disease is getting an early diagnosis. Brain scans can find evidence of Alzheimer’s a decade or more before it causes memory problems, but they’re too expensive and impractical for routine use.
Unlike tests such as mammograms and PSA screenings, health insurance doesn’t cover brain scan tests without an underlying problem.
But there may be a simple, inexpensive test that would provide early detection of Alzheimer’s disease.
A recent Associated Press news release reports that scientists in Australia are finding encouraging early results from a simple eye test they hope will give a non-invasive way to detect signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s, a disease of the brain, also causes changes in the eyes.
Using a special camera, researchers compared retinal photographs of 110 healthy people, 13 people with Alzheimer’s and 13 others with mild cognitive impairment, often a precursor of Alzheimer’s disease, who were taking part in a larger study on aging.
The widths of certain blood vessels in those with Alzheimer’s were different from vessels in the others and the amount of difference matched the amount of plaque seen on brain scans. Admittedly, this is a small study, but it shows evidence of Alzheimer’s disease may appear in areas outside the brain.
Interestingly, eye doctors often are the first medical professionals to see patients with signs of Alzheimer’s, which can begin with vision changes rather than the more commonly expected memory problems.
There are other signs of the disease under consideration, including balance and gait problems, that may show up before mental changes do.
A Washington University study involved 125 people, average age 74, who had normal cognition and were taking part in a federally funded study of aging.
The participants kept personal journals noting if they fell and how often they fell. In six months, of the 125 study participants, 48 of them fell at least once.
The risk of falling was nearly three times greater for those whose scans showed higher levels of the sticky plaque in their brains.
These results are not conclusive because among older people falls can often be medication-related or due to dizziness from high blood pressure, a blood vessel problem or other diseases like Parkinson’s disease. Falls can also cause head injury or brain trauma that leads to cognitive problems.
What we should take away from that finding is that people who suffer falls that seem to occur for no particular reason could be well served by being evaluated for dementia.
Alzheimer’s remains a frightening specter in a growing number of our aging population, but we’re gaining ground on tools for early diagnosis, and hopeful that new drugs may provide treatment or a cure in the future.
Ron Kauffman is a Geriatric Consultant & Planner in private practice in Henderson and Polk Counties. He is the author of Caring for a Loved One with Alzheimer’s Disease, available at the Polk County Senior Center. His podcasts can be heard weekly at www.seniorlifestyles.net. You can reach him at his office at 828-626-9799 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.