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Pennsylvanians could benefit from early detection of Alzheimer's, report finds

In this Aug. 14, 2018 file photo, a doctor looks at PET brain scans in Phoenix. A big study to help Medicare officials decide whether to start covering brain scans to check for Alzheimer’s disease missed its goals for curbing emergency room visits and hospitalizations. The results announced Thursday, July 30, 2020 call into question whether the costly tests are worth it for a disease that currently has no cure.
Matt York
In this Aug. 14, 2018 file photo, a doctor looks at PET brain scans in Phoenix. The Alzheimer's Association's 2022 report finds that primary care physicians need more support to diagnose and manage the disease, which has no cure.

An estimated 320,000 Pennsylvanians who are older than 65 will have Alzheimer’s disease by 2025, yet most people mistake early signs of the disease as typical signs of aging.

That’s according to a new report from the Alzheimer’s Association, which also states that most people want to know if they will develop the disease.

People often start exhibiting subtle issues with language and memory a couple of years before an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. While these symptoms are not always due to dementia, the report states that about a third of individuals with these symptoms will develop Alzheimer’s dementia within five years.

The report also says that primary care physicians need to be better equipped to identify, diagnose and manage a patient’s early-stage Alzheimer’s. One area of improvement is diagnostic tools, like blood-based biomarker tests.

Although not yet widely available, the report predicts that eventually biomarker tests could be ordered through primary care practices, “to help detect disease early so that a patient could be referred to a specialist or monitored more closely for cognitive decline by their primary care physician.”

As of now, the report finds that nearly half of primary care physicians say they’re reluctant to make a diagnosis for Alzheimer’s, which has no cure. However, experts say there are many benefits to learning if one has what is often considered a scary diagnosis.

“[It] allows an individual to set priorities based on what's important to them. How do they want to live?” said Carrie Chiusano of the Oakmont-based Presbyterian SeniorCare Network. “ An early diagnosis allows for informed decisions about legal, financial and care matters, and they have time to make their wishes known to family and friends.”

And the sooner someone knows they have Alzheimer’s, the greater their medical options. This includes determining whether they want to participate in clinical trials, which tend to focus on the early stages of the disease.

“We desperately need to increase awareness of people to enroll in clinical trials in order to advance the understanding and the pathway of earlier and more effective treatments,” said Sara Murphy, vice president of programs and services for the Alzheimer’s Association Greater Pennsylvania Chapter.

Therefore, Murphy says it’s essential to educate the community on what to ask about and look for when it comes to Alzheimer’s. The sooner someone knows, the more power they have in determining what happens to them next.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio where she covered a range of issues, including the 2016 Iowa Caucuses.