NEWPORT BEACH — For the first time in decades, doctors believe that early diagnosis may help delay the onset of Alzheimer's Disease in some patients, local health experts said.
The change was brought on by this week's announcement that the National Institutes of Health and the Alzheimer's Assn. have published new guidelines for diagnosing the disease — the first revised set in 27 years.
The new guidelines recognize an earlier stage, a change in the memory called mild cognitive impairment, which in many patients is linked to the later development of dementia that occurs 7 to 22 years earlier than previously recognized, said Dr. William Shankle, program director for Memory & Cognitive Disorders at Hoag Hospital's Neurosciences Institute.
"I think that the big message is now that we can now more accurately diagnose and identify those who have the disease, the potential for treatment is real," Shankle said. "It really makes sense now more than ever to have your memory checked annually after you're 50 years old."
With early treatment, dementia can be delayed in some patients up to one-third or one-half, giving patients and their families that much more time before the debilitating effects of the later stages of the disease, Shankle said.
The new guidelines take into account subjective awareness that a patient's memory is worsening, an objective confirmation test to distinguish the cause of memory loss between Alzheimer's or another disease, and recognizing biological changes in the body, biomarkers, which indicate the presence of a disease, Shankle said.
"The 'hope' is not for a cure," said Jim McAleer, president and chief executive officer of the Orange County Affiliate of the Alzheimer's Assn. "The 'hope' is that now people can go out, get diagnosed, and get the information out there."
While Alzheimer's remains incurable, the reality is that a substantial number of people who believe that they have the disease actually don't.
People avoid talking to their doctor out of fear of the incurable disease, were misdiagnosed under previous guidelines or are experiencing dementia-like symptoms due to medication interactions, he said.
"The thing to know here is that if you're worried about it or for a loved one, you can pick up the phone and get information about it," he said.
While a cure doesn't exist, information about treatments, new studies and even simple diet and exercise programs may delay the onset of dementia by years, he said.
OC Vital Aging was launched earlier this year by the Hoag Neurosciences Institute with a grant from UNIHealth.
"The majority of people won't understand the new guidelines," Shankle said. "One of the many jobs of OC Vital Aging is educate the community and education the professionals as to what we can do and where the sate of knowledge is at."