If there was nothing that could be done in response to a diagnosis of Alzheimer's, many might advocate for delaying diagnosis for as long as possible. But there are actually many reasons to see your physician earlier, rather than later, if you or your loved one is experiencing symptoms of early dementia.
12 Benefits of an Early Diagnosis of Alzheimer's
- Rule Out Reversible and Treatable Causes of Dementia
There are multiple conditions besides Alzheimer's that can share some of the same characteristics, some of which are treatable — and even reversible. And often, the earlier they're identified and treated, the better the outcome. These can include vitamin B12 deficiency, normal pressure hydrocephalus, delirium and thyroid problems.
- More Opportunities to Participate in Clinical Trials
Did you know that many clinical trials are only open to people in the early stages of Alzheimer's? Some require that the person with the dementia be able to agree to participate and demonstrate an understanding of the clinical trial. Several medications being tested target those who are in the early stages. An early diagnosis allows you to be eligible for more clinical trials, and to be more likely to benefit from the clinical trial drug.
- Medications Are Often More Effective in Early Alzheimer's
In general, the medications that are already approved by the FDA are the most helpful early in the disease process. This is because they seem to aim at maintaining current functioning, and thus slowing the disease process, rather than reversing the symptoms. Some people do respond quite well and report a significant improvement when on medications, while others show negligible change.
- Non-Drug Interventions Can Also Delay and Slow Progression
There is some evidence that other interventions besides medication can help slow down the progression of Alzheimer's disease. This can include physical exercise, mental exercise, meaningful activities and more.
- Time to Plan for Medical and Financial Decisions
A diagnosis while still in the early stages can allow the person with dementia to participate in the decisions about his care and treatment, which can include things like designating a medical power of attorney and a financial power of attorney; writing out a living will in which medical care choices, such as a do not resuscitate order, can be specified; and discussing the person's options and preferences, such as home health care and care facilities.
- Provides an Answer
Feelings after a diagnosis of Alzheimer's can vary significantly. Some people find that, despite the difficulty of hearing this diagnosis, knowing a name for the symptoms they've been experiencing is helpful.
- Provides Time to Record Memories
With a progressive disease such as Alzheimer's, some people choose to be intentional about recording meaningful memories of the person with dementia. There are many ways to do this, including writing, photos, videos and more. These memories can serve as a wonderful way to cherish your loved one, share their personality and story with caregivers, and trigger recollections as you talk with your family member.
- Offers the Caregiver More Understanding and Patience
Some family members have expressed feelings of guilt after a diagnosis because they've been irritated, frustrated or short-tempered with their loved one, not knowing that her forgetfulness or behaviors were not intentional. An early diagnosis has the potential to help the caregiver understand early on how best to understand and help the family member.
- Qualifying for Disability if You're Still Working
If you have early onset Alzheimer's and are still working, you might be able to qualify for disability benefits if you become unable to work.
- Improve Safety
An early diagnosis can provide you with time to identify and address safety concerns. These can include driving, errors in medication administration, wandering and risks in the home.
- Become Informed about What to Expect
For both the person with Alzheimer's and her family members, there's a benefit to knowing what you can expect as the disease progresses. Learning about the stages of Alzheimer's might be difficult at times, but it's generally helpful to know what's typical, and how you might be able to plan for those changes.
- Benefits from Support Groups
Support groups can provide encouragement and education, both for the person living with dementia and for the caregiver. People with Alzheimer's and their family members can often feel isolated, and are at risk for depression. Connecting with others through support groups can allow people to share specific situations and suggestions, and learn how others cope with the challenges of Alzheimer's.
Alzheimer's Association. Early Detection. Accessed December 15, 2012. http://www.alz.org/professionals_and_researchers_14897.asp
Alzheimer's Disease International. World Alzheimer's Report 2011. The Benefits of Early Diagnosis and Intervention. Accessed December 15, 2012. www.alz.co.uk/research/WorldAlzheimerReport2011.pdf
Alzheimer's Prevention. Benefits of Early Detection. Accessed December 15, 2012. http://www.alzprevention.org/early-detection-benefits.php