Diagnosing and Treating Alzheimer's Disease

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An early, accurate diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease (AD) helps patients and their families plan for the future. It gives them time to discuss care while the patient can still take part in making decisions. Early diagnosis will also offer the best chance to treat the symptoms of the disease.

Today, the only definite way to diagnose Alzheimer's disease is to find out whether there are plaques and tangles in brain tissue. To look at brain tissue, however, doctors usually must wait until they do an autopsy, which is an examination of the body done after a person dies. Therefore, doctors can only make a diagnosis of "possible" or "probable" AD while the person is still alive.

At specialized centers, doctors can diagnose Alzheimer's Disease correctly up to 90 percent of the time. Doctors use several tools to diagnose "probable" Alzheimer's Disease, including:

  • Questions about the person's general health, past medical problems, and ability to carry out daily activities
  • Tests of memory, problem solving, attention, counting, and language
  • Medical tests—such as tests of blood, urine, or spinal fluid, and brain scans

Sometimes these test results help the doctor find other possible causes of the person's symptoms. For example, thyroid problems, drug reactions, depression, brain tumors, and blood vessel disease in the brain can cause AD-like symptoms. Some of these other conditions can be treated successfully.

Treatments for Alzheimer's Disease

No treatment has been proven to stop Alzheimer's disease. However, for some people in the early and middle stages of the disease, the drugs tacrine, donepezil, rivastigmine, or galantamine, may help prevent some symptoms from becoming worse for a limited time in some patients. (Tacrine is no longer actively marketed by the manufacturer.) Another drug, memantine, has been approved to treat moderate to severe AD, although it also is limited in its effects. And the FDA recently approved the use of donepezil to treat moderate to severe AD.

Also, some medicines may help control behavioral symptoms of AD such as sleeplessness, agitation, wandering, anxiety, and depression. Treating these symptoms often makes patients more comfortable and makes their care easier for caregivers.

Research Into Non-Drug Treatments for Alzheimer's

The National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is the lead Federal agency for AD research. NIA-supported scientists are testing a number of drugs to see if they prevent AD, slow the disease, or help reduce symptoms. Some ideas that seem promising turn out to have little or no benefit when they are carefully studied in a clinical trial. Researchers undertake clinical trials to learn whether treatments that appear promising in observational and animal studies actually are safe and effective in people.

Mild Cognitive Impairment

During the past several years, scientists have focused on a type of memory change called mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which is different from both AD and normal age-related memory change. People with MCI have ongoing memory problems, but they do not have other losses such as confusion, attention problems, and difficulty with language. The NIA-funded Memory Impairment Study compared donepezil, vitamin E, or placebo in participants with MCI to see whether the drugs might delay or prevent progression to AD.

The study found that the group with MCI taking the drug donepezil were at reduced risk of progressing to AD for the first 18 months of a 3-year study when compared with their counterparts on placebo. The reduced risk of progressing from MCI to a diagnosis of AD among participants on donepezil disappeared after 18 months, and by the end of the study, the probability of progressing to AD was the same in the two groups. Vitamin E had no effect at any time point in the study when compared with placebo.

Neuroimaging

Scientists are finding that damage to parts of the brain involved in memory, such as the hippocampus, can sometimes be seen on brain scans before symptoms of the disease occur. An NIA public-private partnership—the AD Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI)—is a large study that will determine whether magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans, or other imaging or biological markers, can see early AD changes or measure disease progression. The project is designed to help speed clinical trials and find new ways to determine the effectiveness of treatments.

Inflammation

There is evidence that inflammation in the brain may contribute to AD damage. Some studies have suggested that drugs such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) might help slow the progression of AD, but clinical trials thus far have not demonstrated a benefit from these drugs. A clinical trial studying two of these drugs, rofecoxib (Vioxx) and naproxen (Aleve) showed that they did not delay the progression of AD in people who already have the disease. Another trial, testing whether the NSAIDs celecoxib (Celebrex) and naproxen could prevent AD in healthy older people at risk of the disease, has been suspended. However, investigators are continuing to follow the participants and are examining data regarding possible cardiovascular risk. Researchers are continuing to look for ways to test how other anti-inflammatory drugs might affect the development or progression of AD.

Antioxidants

Several years ago, a clinical trial showed that vitamin E slowed the progress of some consequences of AD by about 7 months. Additional studies are investigating whether antioxidants—vitamins E and C—can slow AD. Another clinical trial is examining whether vitamin E and/or selenium supplements can prevent AD or cognitive decline, and additional studies on other antioxidants are ongoing or being planned.

Ginkgo Biloba

Early studies suggested that extracts from the leaves of the ginkgo biloba tree may be of some help in treating AD symptoms. There is no evidence yet that ginkgo biloba will cure or prevent AD, but scientists now are trying to find out in a clinical trial whether ginkgo biloba can delay cognitive decline or prevent dementia in older people.

Estrogen

Some studies have suggested that estrogen used by women to treat the symptoms of menopause also protects the brain. Experts also wondered whether using estrogen could reduce the risk of AD or slow the disease. Clinical trials to test estrogen, however, have not shown that estrogen can slow the progression of already diagnosed AD. And one study found that women over the age of 65 who used estrogen with a progestin were at greater risk of dementia, including AD, and that older women using only estrogen could also increase their chance of developing dementia.

Scientists believe that more research is needed to find out if estrogen may play some role in AD. They would like to know whether starting estrogen therapy around the time of menopause, rather than at age 65 or older, will protect memory or prevent AD.


National Institute on Aging (NIA), one of the 27 Institutes and Centers of the National Institute of Health (NIH) leads a broad scientific effort to understand the nature of aging and to extend the healthy, active years of life.

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