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Millions Worldwide Have Undiagnosed Alzheimer's

Report by Alzheimer's Disease International Highlights Undertreatment of Dementia
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Nurse sitting with senior woman

Sept. 13, 2011 -- As many as three-fourths of the 36 million people worldwide who have Alzheimer's disease or other dementias have not been diagnosed, limiting access to treatment for patients and support for caregivers, a new report finds.

The report was released today by the global patient advocacy organization Alzheimer's Disease International (ADI). It highlights what the group calls the worldwide problem of underdiagnosis and undertreatment of dementias.

The group also called on governments throughout the world to develop national strategies to promote the early diagnosis and treatment of dementia.

"Failure to diagnose Alzheimer's in a timely manner represents a tragic missed opportunity to improve the quality of life for millions of people," ADI chairwoman Daisy Acosta notes in a written statement.

Alzheimer's Disease on the Rise

The global incidence of Alzheimer's disease is projected to quadruple within the next four decades. By the year 2050, it is believed that more than 100 million people will have dementias.

According to the ADI report, only about 20% to 50% of Alzheimer's cases have been identified in high-income countries like the U.S. and only about 10% of cases are diagnosed in low- and middle-income regions.

A review of the research led the investigators to conclude that patients and caregivers get significant benefits from the early treatment and diagnosis of dementia. But the usefulness of current drug therapies for Alzheimer's has long been in question.

There are five FDA-approved drugs available in the U.S. But no new drug has been approved for almost a decade.

The drugs help improve memory and address other symptoms in about 50% of patients who take them, but they typically stop working within six months to a year, Alzheimer's Association Vice President of Public Policy Robert Egge tells WebMD.

And none of the drugs modifies the course of the disease.

"Although these drugs only treat symptoms for a period of time, some patients find that they are a very effective boost for the time that they work," Egge says.

Benefits of Early Treatment

Egge says studies increasingly suggest that the available drugs may work better if they are given to patients very early in the course of disease, even before symptoms become evident.

"A key goal of this report is to raise awareness about the importance of early detection," he says. "It is important to know the warning signs for Alzheimer's and if you see these warning signs get to a physician for evaluation." 

Egge says memory loss that disrupts daily life should not be accepted as a normal part of aging.

Among the other early signs that could be cause for concern:

  • Having problems completing familiar tasks.
  • Losing track of dates, seasons, and the passage of time.
  • Having trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships.
  • Having new trouble following or engaging in conversation.
  • Changes in mood and personality, and a new lack of interest in hobbies and social activities.

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