This week's major medical event, the 2013 Alzheimer's Association International Conference (AAIC), highlighted a series of remarkable developments in the fields of dementia detection and care.
Here are a few key takeaways from the presentations:
Even a momentary memory slip can be enough to cause a middle-aged individual to ask themselves a question that they simultaneously want and dread the answer to: "Am I getting Alzheimer's?"
This thought may be distressing enough to compel some individuals to go online for reassurance. In addition to countless articles on the various warning signs of Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, there are also an array of online evaluations that claim to be able to tell a person if they have the dreaded disease by asking a list of questions, or having users solve a series of problems.
This is a curious phenomenon, especially considering that no method of definitively diagnosing Alzheimer's while a person is still alive currently exists.
"Self-diagnosis behavior in particular is increasingly popular online, and freely accessible quizzes that call themselves ‘tests' for Alzheimer's are available on the Internet," says Julie Robillard, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the National Core for Neuroethics at the University of British Columbia and lead author of an analysis of 16 different online Alzheimer's tests.
Unfortunately for those seeking solace in the results of these web-based exams, Robillard and her team came to the conclusion that these tests were not only unreliable, but many of them operated on websites with questionable ethics policies. The reliability, validity and ethical practices of each test was ranked on a scale from one (very poor) to ten (excellent).
When it came to accurately identifying Alzheimer's in a particular user, three quarters of the tests failed to surpass a "poor" rating. Ethically, they were even worse off. Every single test evaluated by the researchers had some kind of ethical concern with regards to misleading explanations of test results, questionable privacy policies and failure to disclose conflicts of interest.According to Robillard, "Frankly, what we found online was distressing and potentially harmful. Freely accessible diagnostic tests that lack scientific validity and conform poorly to guidelines around consent, conflict of interest and other ethical considerations have the potential to harm a vulnerable population and negatively impact their health."
The takeaway: The only Alzheimer's diagnosis you should ever give credence to is one given by a trained medical specialist, such as a neurologist. Always exercise caution and good judgment when seeking medical information online. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says you shouldn't trust information on the web unless you can identify who wrote and reviewed it, how recently the information was posted or updated, and the privacy policies of the site it appears on. You should also use common sense to consider whether the information seems outlandish. If a product or service makes the "miracle cure" claim, that's a pretty good tip off that the material isn't reliable.
An estimated 50 percent of dementia cases exist undiagnosed among the elderly population, according to the Alzheimer's Association. The debate over the merits of seeking an early diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease is becoming more heated.
Experts have proposed introducing population-wide screening measures for dementia as a way to help remedy the problem. However, an analysis conducted by Carol Brayne and her colleagues at the Cambridge Institute of Public Health concluded that there was no concrete evidence to back up the alleged benefits, or the potential risks, of population screening for dementia among aging adults.
There are risks associated with trying to pinpoint something as tricky as the cause of an elder's dementia symptoms.
A separate review done by pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, and economic consultant, Analysis Group Inc., highlighted some of the financial challenges that can occur if an individual is diagnosed with the wrong type of dementia.
Overall, 17 percent of individuals with vascular dementia, and eight percent of individuals with Parkinson's were found to have been previously misdiagnosed with Alzheimer's, according to study authors.
Being misdiagnosed with Alzheimer's disease ended up costing these men and women, on average, an extra $14,000 per year in medical expenses.
(It should be noted that a company owned by Eli Lilly, Avid Radiopharmaceuticals, is the creator of the PET amyloid plaque imaging agent that is used to help identify Alzheimer's disease in individuals exhibiting signs of dementia.)
The takeaway: If your loved one shows signs of cognitive impairment, a trip to the doctor is probably in order. Particularly in the elderly, there are many different factors that can contribute to a cloudy mind including, medication interactions, urinary tract infections and vascular disease. A physician will be able to pinpoint the probable source of your loved one's dementia symptoms and determine how best to treat them.
The belief that, once an individual is diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, there is little or nothing that can be done to slow the gradual decline of cognitive functioning they will experience is common, but may not be entirely accurate, according to a new study from the University of Pennsylvania, Perelman School of Medicine
Researchers discovered a critical link between poor brain blood flow, caused by hardened or blocked blood vessels, and dementia symptoms in people with several different types of neurodegenerative conditions. Individuals with Alzheimer's were found to be the most profoundly affected; close to 80 percent of people with the disease had damaged blood vessels in their brain.
Study authors maintain that people with Alzheimer's who take steps to manage cerebrovascular disease (i.e. eating a "heart healthy" diet, engaging in regular exercise, and treating high cholesterol and high blood pressure) could help stave off some of the cognitive effects of dementia.
The takeaway: Even if your loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's or another form of neurodegenerative condition, they may still be able to stave off some of the negative cognitive impact of the disease by adopting simple lifestyle habits such as a healthy diet and exercise program. As lead study author, Jon Toledo, M.D., put it, "The diligent use of existing treatments for vascular conditions and the implementation of campaigns promoting healthy lifestyles in young and middle aged people may have a positive impact on preventing or reducing dementia symptoms in Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease."