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The Importance of Early Alzheimer's Detection and Recognition

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Putting politics aside, President Ronald Reagan was an extraordinary Alzheimer's victim role model. Reagan recognized and publicly acknowledged his disease while his faculties were still in the early stages of decline. His heartfelt November 5, 1994 letter to his "fellow Americans" demonstrated the courage with which he faced his disease and that he understood the adverse impact it would have on his wife Nancy.

At the moment, I feel just fine. I intend to live the remainder of the years God gives me on this earth doing the things I have always done. I will continue to share life's journey with my beloved Nancy and my family. I plan to enjoy the great outdoors and stay in touch with my friends and supporters.

Unfortunately, as Alzheimer's disease progresses, the family often bears a heavy burden. I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience. When the time comes, I am confident that with your help she will face it with faith and courage.

An accomplished geriatrician who recently joined CareLinx's management team recently drove the importance of early Alzheimer's detection and treatment home to me. Treating Alzheimer's patients is fairly common for geriatric specialists, but for my colleague it is also very personal: Her father is inflicted with the disease. And based on both her professional and family experiences, my colleague says she can't emphasize enough the importance of recognizing and treating dementia while it's still in its early stages. According to the Alzheimer's Association, more than half the individuals with the disease have not been diagnosed.

For starters, Alzheimer's, like most other diseases, is progressive. There are drugs that can delay or mitigate the symptoms of its onslaught, giving the victim time to get their affairs in order or to pursue "bucket list" passions while they still can enjoy and appreciate them. Early stage detection can also empower the victim to make quality and end-of-life decisions and spare their family the pain of having to make them on their behalf. It can also allow the victim to play a role in the selection of their caregiver, who ultimately may be the last person they will routinely recognize. It can be helpful for the caregiver to know their patient when they still retain some semblance of their normal selves.

But recognizing early stage dementia can be easy to overlook, especially since families inherently want to deny them. In the case of my colleague's father, she recognized something was seriously amiss when an educator her father saw to review his diabetic treatment regimen determined he was incapable of calculating his carb intake. The comment angered her father because he had been a diabetic for decades and had been accurately doing the calculations most of his adult life.

"That was the moment I realized for sure what was going on," my colleague shared. "I believed the educator, not my Dad. She was a true objective outsider basically administering a test. The only way to reconcile these facts was that my father's higher order cognition had dramatically changed. Although there were other minor warning signs, the educator's determination was irrefutable."

The Alzheimer's Association has prepared a very helpful document outlining some of the early warning signs of dementia. Another helpful primer is from the Mayo Clinic, which lists some less obvious but telling signs, such as scorched pots (an indication that an elderly person is routinely forgetting cooked food on the stove).

Just as with any other major disease, there are great benefits to identifying and treating Alzheimer's early. The Ostrich approach is never a wise alternative.