Friends and Family May Be the Best Detectors of Early Alzheimer’s

October 28, 2010

Family members and friends may be better judges of early Alzheimer’s disease than standard memory tests, a new study reports. The results could help doctors diagnose suspected Alzheimer’s at an earlier stage, when treatment may be more effective and families can better prepare for the changes to come.

The study comes from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where researchers developed a two-minute questionnaire that asked close friends and family members if they have noticed problems with memory or judgment. The survey asked “yes” or “no” questions about whether they have noticed such signs in loved ones as:

  • Bad financial choices or other problems in judgment;
  • Less interest in hobbies and other favorite activities;
  • Repeating questions, stories or statements;
  • Trouble learning how to use a tool or appliance, such as a television remote control or a microwave oven;
  • Forgetting the month or year;
  • Difficulty handling complicated financial affairs, such as balancing a checkbook;
  • Difficulty remembering appointments; and
  • Consistent problems with thinking and memory.

Survey results were then correlated with so-called biomarkers, like brain changes on brain scans or blood tests results, that are generally regarded as predictors of Alzheimer’s. The survey proved more accurate than standard word and memory tests like the mini-mental state exam, which doctors perform in their offices to look for early signs of Alzheimer’s.

Close friends and relatives know loved ones well and see them on a regular basis, so it is not surprising that they can pick up subtle changes in thinking or behavior over time. Traditional memory tests, in contrast, provide just a snapshot of a person’s mental state while they are sitting in the doctor’s office.

In addition, those with early Alzheimer’s often lack insight into their own thinking problems, so asking them about these problems is often not accurate.

“It’s not economically feasible to screen everyone for Alzheimer’s disease biomarkers,” said Dr. John C. Morris, director of the Charles F. and Joanne Knight Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Washington University. The questionnaire, he said, “gives us a brief and very low-cost alternative that takes a few minutes of the informant’s time to screen for dementia and thus identify those individuals who need follow-up evaluations to determine if there truly are signs of Alzheimer’s.”

If you suspect a family member or friend is having trouble with thinking and memory, bring it to the attention of their doctor. Alzheimer’s is just one of many causes of failing memory. And in some cases, such as medication side effects, memory loss may be reversible.

By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by William J. Netzer, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.

Source: Washington University School of Medicine. Galvin JE, Fagan AM, Holtzman DM, Mintun MA, Morris JC. “Relationship of dementia screening tests with biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease”. Brain, online Sept. 10, 2010.


Alzheimer's Articles