As a trained physician, you understand how important it is to provide information, support, and answers to your patients and their families. Doing so helps them to better deal with what some consider a scary diagnosis. For many people, the ultimate in “scary” is Alzheimer’s disease. It’s been sensationalized by mainstream media as a relentless monster stalking its victims and changing them into someone unrecognizable.
Because the disease carries that sort of stigma, the family doctor may not be proactive in pursuing an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, even when the patient presents with suspicious symptoms. A recent story in the Arizona Republic illustrates this reality. “Now that he looks back, Ed says Frankie started showing signs of the disease at age 52 — nothing dramatic, just a forgotten name or a place she was supposed to be. Her doctor told her that it was normal; it happens to everyone, Ed says. The next year, a different doctor told Frankie the same thing. But then in 2005, when Frankie was 56, she was hospitalized with the flu. She seemed disoriented, so doctors ran a few tests and referred her to the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute. Doctors there finally said the words: Alzheimer’s disease.” 1
Today, there are tests available to help physicians diagnose Alzheimer’s earlier. Sooner is definitely better when it comes to helping the patient and his or her family prepare for a life with Alzheimer’s. Here are four reasons to actively pursue an answer for those concerned about cognitive changes in themselves or a loved one:
Patient care options
A prompt diagnosis means earlier access to medications that can help alleviate some of the symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s disease. While there’s no cure yet, disease-management therapies currently available may enable the patient to live a better life. Further, there are ongoing clinical trials that are studying new treatments; these are open to qualified patients.2 Finally, there is the notion of a “right to a diagnosis”, which simply means that people deserve the dignity of truth.
A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is a traumatic event for the patient and family. Yet, it can also provide a sense of relief, because caregivers – usually family members – are finally able to put into proper context the unusual behavior of their loved one. For example, if a spouse has become angry and paranoid, it’s somewhat comforting to understand that this is a manifestation of the disease.
Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s is a physically and emotionally taxing process. An early diagnosis is helpful in allowing caregivers to prepare for this process.
Planning for the future
A prompt diagnosis allows families to sit down and discuss the future. This is very important with a disease like Alzheimer’s, because the longer the diagnosis delay, the poorer the person’s communication skills may become. Husbands and wives need time for discussions about careers, finances, and care directives; they need to find out how the diagnosis impacts Social Security and Medicaid benefits. For example, in 2010, the Social Security Administration added early-onset Alzheimer’s disease to its Compassionate Allowances Initiative. Inclusion allows for quicker payments to those with Alzheimer’s.3
Peace of mind
Diagnostic tests and physical examination often rule out Alzheimer’s as the cause for cognitive problems. These symptoms can result from other very treatable conditions, such as a simple vitamin deficiency. Don’t allow your patient to stew in stress and fear; take action and provide answers as fast as possible.
Catch Alzheimer’s early, so you can provide better care options for your patients and their families.
1. Bland, K. A man’s touch: More men are taking on caregiving role. With debilitating diseases afflicting more women, the men in their lives are stepping up. Arizona Republic. June 21, 2013. http://www.azcentral.com/healthyliving/articles/20130622male-caregivers-phoenix-health-alzheimers.html Accessed July 1, 2013.
2. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. National Institutes of Health. National Institute on Aging. Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center. http://www.nia.nih.gov/alzheimers/clinical-trials Accessed July 1, 2013.
3. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. National Institutes of Health. National Institute on Aging. Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center. Social Security’s Compassionate Allowance Program Now Includes Early-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease, Mixed Dementia. Updated June 26, 2013. http://www.nia.nih.gov/alzheimers/announcements/2010/06/social-securitys-compassionate-allowance-program-now-includes-early Accessed July 1, 2013.