Tests of cognitive function are the best way so far to predict whether healthy elderly people will develop Alzheimer's

Although Alzheimer's disease begins long before symptoms appear, early diagnosis of Alzheimer's has so far been elusive. And given that there is no cure for the disease, benefits of early detection remain questionable. The October issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter reports on new ways to detect Alzheimer's early -- and reasons to want to do so.

According to the Harvard Mental Health Letter, tests of cognitive function are the best way so far to predict whether healthy elderly people will develop Alzheimer's. In one study, more than 80% of people who scored below a certain level on a test of delayed word recall developed Alzheimer's over the next 10 years. Brain scans may also prove useful. Research suggests that they are now almost as accurate as psychological tests in predicting the course of the illness.

Researchers are working on ways to detect small changes in beta-amyloid and tau protein -- biological markers for the disease -- in blood and spinal fluid. They're also making progress in determining the genetic markers for Alzheimer's.

  • Even though there is currently no treatment or cure for Alzheimer's, early detection is valuable, says the Harvard Mental Health Letter, for these reasons:
  • It affords people the opportunity to decide on long-term care and other important legal and family matters before the disease sets in.
  • Individuals are more likely to address other risk factors for dementia (such as vascular problems) if they learn of their risk of the disease.
  • Researchers will be able to conduct more and better clinical trials on the subject, an important step toward developing effective treatments.

Also in this issue:

  • Defining obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Poor health and low mood
  • Personality perceptions across cultures
  • Psychiatric risks of Accutane (isotretinoin)

The Harvard Mental Health Letter is available from Harvard Health Publications, the publishing division of Harvard Medical School. Subscribe at http://www.health.harvard.edu/mental

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