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Alzheimer's Disease Health Center

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New Criteria for Diagnosing Alzheimer's Coming

Earlier Diagnosis Needed as New Drugs Come Down the Pike
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Aug. 4, 2010 -- The race is on to finalize proposed new ways to help diagnose Alzheimer's disease early, even before any symptoms occur. The newly proposed diagnostic criteria were developed by experts from the National Institute on Aging and the Alzheimer's Association and cover three stages of the disease: pre-clinical Alzheimer's, mild cognitive impairment, and Alzheimer's dementia.

Promising new drugs to treat Alzheimer's are in the pipeline, which is why the researchers who are developing the new diagnostic criteria must hit the ground running, experts said during a media briefing sponsored by the Alzheimer's Association. About 5.3 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease, most of them aged 65 and older, according to statistics from the Alzheimer's Association.

"We want to be ready because labs are churning out all these new possible products and clinical trials are under way, and if the results should be positive, the idea is that they will work better in someone whose brain is relatively intact so the earlier we can diagnose someone as being on track for Alzheimer's disease, the better these agents may work," says Creighton Phelps, PhD, director of the Alzheimer's Disease Centers Program in the division of neuroscience at the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Md.

"If we had a drug that stops or delays the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, the demand for this diagnostic criteria would be immediate," says Steven DeKosky, MD, vice president and dean of the University of Virginia School of Medicine in Charlottesville. "When the drugs are ready, we will be ready to identify Alzheimer's disease in all three stages."

Likening Alzheimer's disease diagnosis to that of heart disease, he says "we want to identify people who are at-risk and have no symptoms and when appropriate, treat them so they never have these symptoms emerge or we can significantly delay their onset."

People with known heart disease risk factors such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure are identified and treated early on the basis of these risk factors so that they do not go on to have a heart attack or stroke. "This is exactly where we are going in Alzheimer's disease," DeKosky says.

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