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Factbox: Alzheimer's: why early diagnosis is key

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia and it affects memory, thinking, behavior and emotion. It is important to diagnose it early so that the person and caregivers can prepare to cope with it.

Here are some facts about the disease:

* What is it?: Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually even the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. In most people with Alzheimer’s, symptoms first appear after age 60.

* Symptoms: loss of memory, difficulty in finding the right words or understanding what people are saying, difficulty in performing previously routine tasks, personality and mood changes. By the final stage, the brain would have shrunk significantly. People with severe Alzheimer’s cannot communicate and are completely dependent on others for their care. Near the end, the person may be in bed most or all of the time as the body shuts down.

* Affected population: 10 percent of people over the age of 70 and up to 30 percent of those over 80.

* Risk factors: Age, strong family history of dementia, excessive alcohol consumption, head injury. Risk factors for heart disease such as high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking and being overweight seem to increase the risk of getting dementia.

It seems that people who keep their brains active may be at less risk of developing dementia. Reading, engaging in a hobby such as playing mahjong, bridge or chess, or doing crosswords and word puzzles may help to reduce risk.

* Diagnosis: A reasonably accurate diagnosis of dementia can be made by taking a careful history of the person’s problem from a close relative or friend, together with an examination of the person’s physical and mental status.

There is no simple test to make a diagnosis and dementia can only be confirmed with certainty by examining the brain at post mortem. When making a diagnosis, it is important to exclude other treatable conditions that cause memory loss, like depression, urinary infection, vitamin deficiency and brain tumor.

* Importance of early diagnosis: Early diagnosis enables caregivers to prepare and be better equipped to cope with the disease progression.

It provides people with dementia with an opportunity to make decisions about their financial and legal affairs before they lose the ability to do so. It gives patients a better chance to benefit from existing treatments.

* Treatment: There is now no cure for Alzheimer’s disease or for most other forms of dementia. Nor can one be expected in the near future.

Researchers are developing drugs that will slow down the progression of the disease, at least in some cases. They do not know how to prevent the disease, how to stop its progression, or how to reverse its effects.

There are a few drugs that can slow down the progression of the disease in some cases for periods of six to 18 months. But they are not a cure and can only stabilize some symptoms of early to mid stage Alzheimer’s disease for a limited period.

Other kinds of drugs are sometimes useful for controlling some symptoms, such as sleeplessness and agitation. However, their use should be kept to a minimum as they can cause increased confusion.

Source: Alzheimer’s Disease International, US National Institutes of Health

Reporting by Tan Ee Lyn