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Alzheimer's Often Goes Unrecognized by the Family Doctor

WebMD Health News

Sept. 25, 2000 --- Alzheimer's disease has been called a kind of journey, though obviously not one anyone would choose to take. Because of the slowly debilitating nature of the disease, it is often the caregiver who must guide the patient through the maze of confusing and often sorrowful searching. Many caregivers turn to the family doctor to lead them, yet are these doctors really the best people to rely on for diagnosis and management of the disease?

Not always, according to a small study presented at the 52nd Annual Scientific Assembly of the American Academy of Family Physicians in Dallas.

"What was most surprising about our study is that almost 50% of the cases of dementia went undiagnosed by the primary care physician," study author Gerald D. Karetnick, BA, tells WebMD. "We also found that it took, on average, nine months before the primary caregiver took the patient to their doctor for an initial visit --- and from this point, another three years before an actual diagnosis of Alzheimer's was made." Karetnick is a fourth year medical student at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey at the School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford.

In order to determine how well family doctors recognize, evaluate, and diagnose dementia, the researchers surveyed 55 caregivers of Alzheimer's patients about their experience with their primary care physicians.

Caregiver responses showed that slightly more than half of primary care physicians performed tests for the symptoms of dementia, only a quarter conducted mental status exams, and less than half referred patients to a specialist for further evaluation. Fewer than a quarter of the caregivers were given information about community services, and less than half were asked about the stress they were experiencing.

Is it the lack of time faced by doctors or the need for further education about the disease that causes their missed diagnosis? The researchers are not sure, but according to Bill Thies, PhD, vice president of medical and scientific affairs for The Alzheimer's Association in Chicago, complete communication is the key to managing the disease.

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