New Test Detects Dementia

Contributed by: Dennis Fortier, President, Medical Care Corporation

This headline, or a version of it, is widely published today and refers to the Test Your Memory (TYM) test.

The ensuing story gives hope to the idea that we will now begin to intervene earlier (and more effectively) to treat patients with Alzheimer's disease. We all want that to be true but we probably still have a ways to go.

I have read about a dozen stories on this news and here are a couple of comments to help you digest what you may be reading:

First, many of these articles are improperly interchanging the terms "Dementia" and "Alzheimer's". As we have described in earlier posts (here and here), Alzheimer's is one cause of dementia but about 40% of the demented population have another cause. These terms are not interchangeable and it is negligent for journalists to perpetrate the confusion with such careless writing.

Second, dementia is a well defined clinical term referring to a pretty severe cognitive impairment. When a person is demented, a trained physician or even a close family member with no medical training will detect the problem through conversation and observation. In other words, if the decline is severe enough to meet the definition of "dementia", no test is needed. While a test to detect early Alzheimer's disease (prior to the dementing stages) would be fantastic, a test to detect dementia is really not that useful.

Finally, the TYM test makes no claim of being diagnostic in terms of identifying the cause of cognitive impairment (be it Alzheimer's disease, stroke, head trauma, etc.), but the press has conferred on it the ability to do so. This process unintentionally sets high expectations for a new technology and may result in unfair criticism later.

Let's all be careful to understand that the researchers who developed this test have made some cautious claims that I believe they can support entirely. Let's not be disappointed if the test can't meet all the claims the press wants to make in their sensational headlines.

Looking optimistically forward, I am hopeful that the TYM test may, upon further evaluation, prove to be sensitive to earlier stages of decline and perhaps even have diagnostic value. As I have written in this blog, the biggest and most immediate step forward we could make in treating Alzheimer's disease is to find it earlier and treat it before it progresses. Tests like the TYM may make that possible in the near term.

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