Should doctors even test for Alzheimer’s?

Early detection might help find a cure, but it can also cause pointless suffering and anxiety

Alzheimer's sufferers
(Image credit: VStock LLC/CORBIS)

A debate is raging among researchers who are focused on Alzheimer's, the debilitating, memory-eroding disease from which more than 35 million people worldwide suffer. While there is currently no precise diagnostic test for Alzheimer's — some techniques under development, like an eye scan or a blood test, are years away from approval — an innovative type of brain scan that can detect early signs of Alzheimer's is expected to be available within months. Doctors and Alzheimer's patient advocates, however, wonder if such screening will create undue anxiety in patients, since the disease is incurable, and even the best available treatments don't always slow its progress. Should doctors begin routine testing for Alzheimer's?

Yes. It would clear up confusion: A lot of conditions — such as insomnia — have symptoms that look a lot like Alzheimer's, says Dr. R. Scott Turner, as quoted by the Associated Press. That's why we need these tests. Patients sometimes get an improper diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer's without being tested to see if they have another condition. "Sometimes it's thyroid disease, or depression, or vitamin B-12 deficiency — something that's very treatable." Every misdiagnosis represents a lost opportunity to help, and this test would bring more accuracy to doctors' work.

"Alzheimer's debate: Test if you can't treat it?"

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No. There are no effective treatments: Some people simply don't want to know they have Alzheimer's, says Robert Bazell at, because the anxiety produced by an Alzheimer's diagnosis outweighs the effectiveness of current treatments. "There are drugs on the market... that elevate cognitive function in some patients for a brief periods, but none stops the inevitable decline." Additionally, the newer tests aren't exactly foolproof. "The tests can tell if someone has an increased risk of Alzheimer’s, but they cannot say for certain they will get the disease."

"Predicting Alzheimer's: Would you want to know?"

But early testing helps with clinical research: Let's not shy away from these tests, says Dr. Maria Carrillo of the Alzheimer's Association. Early diagnosis allows patients to get better access to medication, can actually lower anxiety, and helps spouses and families plan for the future. Plus, clinical trials with people who have the early signs of Alzheimer's will point the way to better treatments: "We need to identify people in the earliest stages of Alzheimer's, even those without outward evidence of memory and thinking symptoms, for treatment and prevention trials."

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