Did you know that every 66 seconds someone in the United States develops Alzheimer’s disease, and nearly half of them are already in the moderate-to-severe stage at the time of diagnosis?1 Despite being the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., Alzheimer’s disease has gained a reputation as an illness we can’t do anything about.2 As someone who has made this disease his life’s work, I’m calling for an end to the under-diagnosis and under-treatment of this disease.
Lack of attention to early Alzheimer’s disease is a tragedy, because there are things we can do to help people who are starting to experience memory loss, as well as the people who care for them. Although a cure does not exist, there are treatment options for people living with Alzheimer’s disease that can help to slow down the severity of their symptoms, especially if they are diagnosed early.
Barriers to Diagnosis
Unfortunately, people with Alzheimer’s disease are often not diagnosed early enough. A common barrier to early diagnosis is that primary care physicians often feel that their medical training left them inadequately prepared to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease early in its course, leading to missed diagnoses and, in turn, delayed treatment. By the time Alzheimer’s has been diagnosed, patients have often progressed into more severe stages of the illness, and this lost ground is impossible to regain.
It is critical that primary care doctors be trained to recognize the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, since effective treatments at the onset of symptoms are patients’ and their caregivers’ best hope for living a high-quality life despite their disease. We also need to educate the general public to look out for and detect early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, so that they can seek a diagnosis from a healthcare professional as early as possible.
Available Treatment Options
Many of my patients and their caregivers are eagerly waiting and hoping for a cure to become available, but with each passing day, patients’ mental states continue to deteriorate. Less than one percent of drugs developed for Alzheimer’s disease have successfully advanced to FDA approval, and many people living with Alzheimer’s disease are not using treatments that are currently available on the market.1, 3, 4 This is time that Alzheimer’s patients simply cannot afford to waste. While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, current treatments have been shown to help slow the progression of symptoms for a while. Early diagnosis and treatment could help many of the 5.5 million Americans, and the 50 million people worldwide, who are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease.
The Impact of Alzheimer’s Disease on Caregivers
It’s important to recognize that Alzheimer’s disease has a profound effect not only on the people living with the condition, but also on more than 15 million people in the U.S. who are caring for them.1 These caregivers often neglect their own health needs and incur substantial emotional, financial, and physical difficulties in order to provide close attention to their loved ones. They are faced with a multitude of obligations – from tracking medications and balancing checkbooks to assisting with bathing needs and other everyday functions. The emotional and economic burden of caregiving is enormous, with one out of every two primary caregivers developing major depression, and the annual cost of care estimated at $230 billion in the U.S. alone in 2016.5
Properly diagnosing individuals as early as possible and making sure they take adequate doses of medication — and stick with them — can help preserve and maintain cognitive function. Sadly, these relatively simple measures are too often not applied because of the misconceptions surrounding the treatment of Alzheimer’s. It’s time to put aside such mistaken beliefs and take action to alleviate the burden imposed by this terrible disease, before it’s too late for patients and their caregivers.
1.“What is Alzheimer’s?” Alzheimer’s Association. http://alz.org/alzheimers_disease_what_is_alzheimers.asp. Accessed April 18, 2017.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Deaths from Alzheimer’s Disease – United States, 1999-2014. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 26 May, 2017. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/66/wr/mm6620a1.ht
3.Cummings JL, Morstorf T, Zhong K. Alzheimer’s disease drug-development pipeline: few candidates, frequent failures. Alzheimers Res Ther. 20 14;6(4):37.
4.Blutstein T, Kumar N, Searles JW; for the Decision Resources Group. Alzheimer’s disease: analyzing and forecasting the commercial outlook of drugs on the market and in research and development. Burlington, MA: Decision Resources Group; 2015.
5.“2017 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures.” Alzheimer’s Association. http://www.alz.org/facts/overview.asp. Accessed April 18, 2017.