Alzheimer’s disease can be challenging for physicians to detect at an early stage if patients themselves do not recognize the warning signs or are reluctant to communicate their concerns. Often, it is family members or friends who observe signs of dementia even before the patient is aware they have a problem.
There is still no definitive test for detecting Alzheimer’s disease, so a careful medical evaluation is needed to help lead to a diagnosis. In addition to physical exams and a review of medical history, the assessment can include cognitive testing, neurological exams, blood tests or brain imaging scans. Difficulty with memory alone does not necessarily point to Alzheimer’s but could indicate other treatable issues such as vitamin deficiencies, depression or a side effect from medications. But because no single test detects Alzheimer’s with 100 percent accuracy, diagnosing Alzheimer’s remains a challenge.
Experts who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease can help ensure a proper evaluation is conducted, but recent studies have shown that as many as 1 in 5 Alzheimer’s cases may be misdiagnosed. Misdiagnosis includes patients who are told they have Alzheimer’s when they do not, as well as patients whose Alzheimer’s disease is not recognized.
In one recent study conducted at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, researchers found that men are misdiagnosed at a higher rate than women. A number of factors are influencing this difference, including: men tend to develop Alzheimer’s at an earlier age than women, Alzheimer’s appears to affect different areas of the brain for men versus women, and men’s symptoms may more often exhibit as behavioral or language difficulty while women more typically experience memory issues commonly associated with Alzheimer’s.
A separate study from the Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto which examined inconsistencies between clinical diagnoses of Alzheimer’s and brain autopsy findings, also found about a 20 percent discrepancy. This study showed that false diagnosis was often influenced by the presence of other conditions, including other types of dementia. Patients who had Alzheimer’s but were not diagnosed, also frequently suffered from other conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease or vascular dementia, that may have masked the Alzheimer’s symptoms.
It is important for anyone with concerns about the possible onset of Alzheimer’s to work with a trusted physician to reach a proper diagnosis as soon as possible. An early diagnosis can help people with Alzheimer’s better prepare for the future as the disease progresses and participate in decisions with their loved ones about their own care as well as financial and legal matters. Early diagnosis also offers more opportunity for benefitting from available treatments and possibly participating in clinical trials to help test new therapies.
A thorough examination by a qualified expert in Alzheimer’s diagnosis and treatment can help alleviate anxieties about the unknown. Some behavioral or cognitive difficulties might not be due to Alzheimer’s at all, but may be caused by other conditions that can be treated. But if Alzheimer’s disease has taken hold, it is important to learn as early as possible what treatment options are available and begin discussions with loved ones about critical care decisions for the future to ensure the best quality of life for as long as possible.