The difficulties of diagnosing Alzheimer's
Alzheimer’s is a disease that goes undiagnosed in a high number of patients. According to figures released by the Spanish Society of Neurology (SEN), of the 600,000 people afflicted by this neurodegenerative disease, between 30% and 40% are unaware that they even have it.
The first symptoms usually appear about 5 years before the full-blown disease takes hold. It starts as loss of memory, especially relating to recent events. As preparations are under way for the World Day against Alzheimer’s on Saturday 21st September, we are reminded that an early diagnosis during the initial stage is a fundamental tool in improving the quality of life of patients and their families.
However, this disease is not easy to diagnose. Alzheimer’s may easily be confused with other types of dementia, especially in the early stages. Alzheimer’s is caused by neuron death and by the presence of two abnormal brain structures: the proliferation of senile plaques (deposits of beta-amyloid peptide) and the formation of structures called amyloid fibrils. Absolute confirmation that a person is affected by this disease can only be given following a biopsy, which is not a clinical solution. Therefore, specialists use other combined techniques: clinical interviews, biomedical imaging (TAC, MRI scans of the brain), electroencephalograms and analyses of the beta-amyloid protein in the cephalorachidian liquid.
The problem of reaching a diagnosis means that, in the earlier stages, the disease is only recognised in 5% of cases, whereas in the later and more evolved stages it is diagnosed in 64% of cases.
Alzheimer’s is one of the main causes of disability and dependence in the western world and its incidence is increasing. Because of the progressive ageing of the population and the increase in patient life expectancy, it is calculated that in 2050 there could be over a million people with this disease in Spain alone. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that it brings an enormous burden to social and healthcare structures. A patient affected with Alzheimer’s requires, on average, 70 hours a week of care. In 80% of cases, responsibility for the care of patients falls to family members.