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Millions Worldwide Have Undiagnosed Alzheimer's

Report by Alzheimer's Disease International Highlights Undertreatment of Dementia

Benefits of Early Treatment continued...

Early diagnosis can benefit patients and family members, Egge says, by giving them more time to plan for future needs.

It could also identify people for studies who are in the very earliest stages of the disease when drug treatments are most likely to work.

Neurologist and Alzheimer's researcher Marc L. Gordon, MD, agrees that it will be increasingly important to identify patients early in the course of their disease as new treatments become available.

Gordon is chief of neurology at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, N.Y. "We are hoping to have drugs that are truly disease modifying, but in order to test them we will need to find people in the earliest stages and people who have a high risk for developing dementia," he says. "We aren't there yet, but we are looking at a number of markers that could help us do this."

Effectiveness of Alzheimer's Drugs

Gordon says while the current drug treatments don't work for all patients, they do seem to help some.

"These medications have been shown to have a symptomatic benefit, albeit modest," he says. "If I were a patient with Alzheimer's disease, I would want to be on one of the available drugs."

But gerontologist R. Knight Steel, MD, contradicts some of the report, saying he is not so sure about the effectiveness of current drugs for early Alzheimer's disease.

Steel is chief emeritus for Geriatrics at Hackensack University Medical Center, N.J., and a past-president of the American Geriatrics Society. He says it is misleading to tell patients and family members that available drug treatments and interventions are likely to make a big difference in the course of the disease.

"I have treated many patients with memory loss and dementia," he tells WebMD. "I tell them we can try the drugs, but in truth I have seen very little that convinces me that they work. I'm not saying the drugs don't help some patients. I just can't say that they definitely do."

One problem, Steel says, is that it is difficult to accurately assess improvements in memory and other aspects of cognitive function in patients with Alzheimer's.

"If you give someone a drug to improve kidney function it is not hard to determine if it is working," he says. "But memory is not so easy to measure."

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