Predicting Alzheimer's Disease is a Misnomer in the Press

Contributed by: Dennis Fortier, President, Medical Care Corporation

I think there will come a day, decades from now, when a massive amount of genetic data can be combined with a massive amount of demographic data, lifestyle date, social data, and other pertinent medical data, to predict with useful accuracy, the likelihood of a particular person getting Alzheimer's disease.

The expert consensus is that we are not even remotely close to that day. Nonetheless, stories about "predicting Alzheimer's disease" abound in the general press.

The point of this post is not to discuss if, or when, we might gain such an ability to predict Alzheimer's disease. Nor is the point to debate whether or not such a prediction would be beneficial, moral, dangerous, or inconsequential. The point is to highlight how the popular press continuously confuses "predicting Alzheimer's" with "identifying Alzheimer's". This story, published online by U.S. News and World Report is a perfect example.

According to the new diagnostic guidelines from the NIH and the National Alzheimer's Association, which were penned to clarify this exact situation, Alzheimer's disease has a long period of progression that passes through a mild cognitive impairment stage prior to the later stages of dementia. Therefore, stories about new technologies for evaluating subjects with mild cognitive impairment and "predicting" if they will progress to Alzheimer's are nonsensical. Either these subjects have mild cognitive impairment because Alzheimer's is already present, or they have mild cognitive impairment due to something else.

For those with the disease, there is no need for a prediction. For those without the disease, their current state of cognitive health may or may not play a role in such a prediction. The press constantly mixes the notions of "identifying" and "predicting".

These stories perpetrate confusion and prevent a clear understanding about which scientific advances are likely to yield benefits in the real world and which are merely interesting.

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