Anyone looking for a sure-fire test out there that can predict the onset of Alzheimer’s disease probably is looking in vain, local experts in the field say.
Jane O’Rourke, a social worker who splits her time between the Alzheimer’s Care Center in Gardiner and the Geriatric Unit at the Family Medical Institute in Augusta, says there is no proven, specific test that detects this debilitating disease of the brain.
“They’re trying spinal taps and DNA,” O’Rourke said. “But the only thing right now is the clinical evaluation.”
O’Rourke said that baby boomers are right smack in the middle of the battle against Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
“They’re either dealing with their parents or dealing with early onset,” she said. “It’s not unusual to see signs of Alzheimer’s at 60 or 61. Dementia is the big umbrella. Alzheimer’s is the most common type.”
Absent the predictor tests, people who are concerned that their brains aren’t functioning correctly get a referral from their primary care physicians, and have their lab work and other medical information with them when they visit places such as the Alzheimer’s Care Center. But an initial home visit can tell health care professionals more.
“We try to do home visits,” O’Rourke said. “It just gives a lot more information seeing someone in their home. People are more relaxed.”
O’Rourke said that medical professionals conduct “mini-mental exams,” such as the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, on people who have concerns. A doctor or a family member might have noticed that the person has been experiencing difficulties with his or her memory, she said.
“The Montreal Cognitive Assessment is a screen, it’s not a test,” she said. “The patient might copy a cube, draw a clock, connect numbers and letters. All these can lead to a diagnosis.”
A diagnosis, in turn, might lead to a doctor prescribing medications.
Early-onset Alzheimer’s is trouble, any way you look at it.
“With early onset – 60 and younger – it’s more rapid progression,” O’Rourke said.
Drugs such as Aricept and Namenda are prescribed. Their efficacy varies.
“It really depends on who you talk to,” O’Rourke said. “Much of the research has been done by the drug companies. It’s not a cure at all.”
Bill Kirkpatrick, program director for the Maine Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association in Scarborough, concurs that there is no predictor test specific to Alzheimer’s.
“There are different ways to look at it,” Kirkpatrick said. “There’s lots of research to come up with early detection, but there’s no one test. We’re getting closer.”
It is a good idea, Kirkpatrick said, to monitor blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Also, following a recommended medical appointment, most physicians can make a diagnosis that is “pretty high in accuracy,” he said.
Jane Margesson, communications director for AARP Maine, said that an international conference on Alzheimer’s in 2011 determined that a brisk daily walk can delay mental aging by five to seven years. Some people who can’t walk would benefit by chair or breathing exercises, she said.
Kirkpatrick, a clinical social worker, said some people refer to Alzheimer’s disease as the “epidemic of the baby boom generation, and the reason is the age factor,” he said.
There are an estimated 5 million people who suffer from Alzheimer’s in the country, and 37,000 in Maine, Kirkpatrick said.
Kirkpatrick said that dementia is a general term for changes in cognitive function that impair a person’s ability to function. Alheimer’s is a disease of the brain that causes dementia, he said.
Alzheimer’s enters the brain 15-20 years prior to the emergence of symptoms, he said.
“Most people with Alzheimer’s are in their mid-60s or older,” he said. “That’s how long it takes for destruction of brain cells and tissue to hit. The first sign is memory impairment.”
Someone might be sitting in the living room, get up and go to get something, and forget the reason for going there.
“That’s just typical of aging,” he said. “People with Alzheimer’s put things in odd locations and can’t remember. That’s the first early sign. These kinds of problems are not signs of aging. Alzheimer’s disease is a fatal disease. It’s terminal.”
Age, family history and overall health status are the biggest risk factors for Alzheimer’s, he said.
Kirkpatrick advises people to go to the website www.alz.org/Maine/ for further information.
Larry Grard is a staff writer at Current Publishing.