Early diagnosis gives dementia patients better chances

By Dr. William R. Shankle

We're at the beginning of the era of "curing" Alzheimer's disease. No more slipping into oblivion. No more loss of dignity. One day – not too long from now – degenerative cognitive conditions will be as manageable as high blood pressure, a disease that requires vigilance to keep at bay but doesn't rob you of your quality of life.

We can now use simple memory tests to identify candidates for treatment before cognitive function is impaired. We have treatment options in clinical trials that appear to remove the "gunk" that leads to Alzheimer's. And we have a kind of "use it or lose it" cognitive treatment model of preventing dementia entirely or greatly delaying it.

The key is early diagnosis.

People don't like to talk about dementia. Many take the "I would rather not know" approach to cognitive diseases. That is because dementia is terrifying to the patient and painful to family members who can do little but watch a loved one's decline.

The world saw evidence of this last year, when comedian Robin Williams took his own life. Williams was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, which affects 1.4 million people and is the second most common type of progressive dementia after Alzheimer's. LBD leads to hallucinations, depression and delusions; it is not uncommon for sufferers to commit suicide.

If every person over the age of 50 underwent an annual memory screen, we would have a chance at preventing dementia entirely or greatly delaying it from claiming more brilliant minds.

Hoag's Orange County Vital Brain Aging Program, as well as doctors who have gone through its training, can provide an annual memory screen, depression screen and risk assessment to help manage your risks and identify signs of dementia early. Sophisticated technology can also help detect harmful proteins in the brain associated with dementia.

If you are at risk, several experimental treatment options now exist including intravenous immunoglobulin, or antibodies that remove the molecules that cause Alzheimer's disease.

But it is not the only medical intervention out there. And a powerful non-medical treatment is also readily available to anyone willing to take advantage of it: Learning.

The phrase "use it or lose it," as it turns out, is as applicable to the brain as it is to any other muscle in the body. Stimulating the brain builds new synapses, or connections, that help counteract the disease process.

Given the severity of dementia, it is amazing to think that the answer might reside in blood products and art classes. But we will never know for sure, if we continue to pretend that the problem isn't there.

So please don't get scared – get screened.

Dr. William R. Shankle is the Judy & Richard Voltmer endowed chair in Memory and Cognitive Disorders at Hoag Neurosciences Institute.