By Kate Kelsall, MSW, blogger at Shake, Rattle and Roll: An Insider’s View of Parkinson’s disease and DBS The challenges involved in hospitalization of the person with Parkinson’s Disease (PD) can be overwhelming for the patient and family. These problems may include medication mismanagement and the lack of training of the hospital staff about how…Continue Reading »
Back in 1983 when President Ronald Reagan designated November as Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, less than two million people had the disease. Today there are more than five million Americans living with Alzheimer’s and it is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, which President Reagan died from himself in 2004, but there are many ways that awareness of the disease can aid those who are living with it. Screenings for Alzheimer’s disease have greatly improved in recent years and become more widely available to the public, making the screenings simple and hassle-free.
“There are benefits to early detection,” said Carol Steinberg, President of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. “It’s important to plan for the future. While someone’s verbal skills are still intact they can express their end-of-life care wishes to loved ones. Also, there are behavioral interventions to preserve the quality of life and some medications that might help with symptoms in the early stages.” Steinberg added that an early diagnosis eases the burden on the family caregiver too, so that they do not have to make care or end-of-life decisions for their loved one without their input.
To this end, the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America started National Memory Screening Day to encourage people to start a discussion about Alzheimer’s and dementia. “This is not a diagnosis by any means,” Steinberg said or the screening tests. This year National Memory Screening day takes place on Tues., Nov. 19.
This annual event takes place at about 2,500 community sites across the country and screenings are done by a qualified health care professional. “We don’t mandate which screening tool they use, but we do suggest tools for them to use,” she said. “The screening is done in a face-to-face interview that takes about five minutes.” The tool that is most widely used is the General Practitioner assessment of Cognition (GPCOG), which is the same one preferred by Homewatch CareGivers.
Judy Yaffe, owner of Homewatch CareGivers serving West Springfield and Northampton in Massachusetts, has been using the GPCOG in her community too. “It is better off to use with people in the beginning to mid-range levels of dementia,” Yaffe said. Although she said that the 7-question screening test is simple, it is done by professionals and not family members.
Since she started working with the screening tests, Yaffe has found it useful in other ways too, not just for raising a red flag about Alzheimer’s or other dementia. “We had one gentleman who had no sight on his left side and no one had picked up on it,” she explained. “He shouldn’t be driving! We worked with him and his family to stop him from driving. Another young woman did the screening test and after taking the results to her doctor discovered she had a brain tumor that could have gone into an aneurysm.”
Yaffe shared these stories to let people who might fear a screening test know that they could learn of a curable problem for their memory lapses. “It can validate that people are cognitively OK, there is just some natural forgetfulness,” she said. There are many possible causes for memory lapses—including nutritional and hormonal imbalances, reaction to medication, and other illnesses.
The Alzheimer’s Association offers an online tool to check for warning signs of dementia, and also touts the benefits of early detection of the disease. They have a 24/7 helpline for people to call in and discuss their concerns about a loved one.
For those who take the GPCOG or another Alzheimer’s screening test and have mixed results, experts advise taking the test to their doctor. The Affordable Care Act includes a provision for an annual wellness visit for those with Medicare, and with this visit detection of possible cognitive impairment. However, Steinberg and other experts say that a discussion about memory concerns is not always taking place and the screening test results can be an excellent way to jumpstart the conversation.
“It’s really important for people to address their memory concerns,” Steinberg said. “There might be other issues that can be cured and people can take steps to improve their quality of life.”
Heather Snyder, PhD, Director of Medical and Scientific Operations at the Alzheimer’s Association, said that community screenings for Alzheimer’s can be useful in encouraging people to volunteer for further study about the disease. “Volunteers are needed for clinical trials, surveys and studies,” she said. “We need a better understanding of these early cognitive changes and a lot of that is still in the research stage.”