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November 12, 2008 > Alzheimer's Disease - How early diagnosis helps.

Alzheimer's Disease - How early diagnosis helps.

Did you know your brain is made up on 100 billion nerve cells? Each of these cells, called neurons, functions like a tiny factory, taking in supplies, generating energy, building equipment and getting rid of waste. It also processes and stores information.

To keep running and stay coordinated with other cells in the brain, neurons need a lot of fuel and oxygen. When parts of the factory don't run smoothly, there are backups and breakdowns that can cause problems in the systems of the brain. As the damage spreads, brain cells lose their ability to do their job well and, eventually, they die. According to the Alzheimer's Association, this is one way of describing what happens to the brain when a person has Alzheimer's disease.

Every 71 seconds, someone in the U.S. develops Alzheimer's, the Association reports. Right now, there are as many as 5.2 million Americans who are living with the disease, and 10 million baby boomers are expected to develop it during their lifetime. It's the sixth leading cause of death in this country.

Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, a condition that causes people to lose their memory and other thinking abilities to the point of interfering with their daily life. It is a progressive, degenerative brain disorder. Currently, there is no cure.

"But, treatment for symptoms, combined with the right services and support, can make life better for the millions of Americans living with Alzheimer's," reports the Alzheimer's Association.

"In general, people are fearful of being diagnosed with Alzheimer's, but it is important that individuals experiencing changes in their memory consult a physician as early as possible," recommends Heather Gray, family support coordinator for the East Bay/Lafayette office of the Alzheimer's Association of the Greater San Francisco Bay Area. "Early diagnosis gives people and their families more time to plan for the future while the individual can still be part of the decision-making process. They have an opportunity to make choices that may help to improve their quality of life. Also, there is a better chance that treatment will be beneficial."

People in the early stages of Alzheimer's are still able to live a fairly normal, happy life despite some difficulties with memory and daily tasks, continues Gray. And, there are different medications that can help with some of the symptoms they may experience.

There are ten warning signs that may indicate someone has Alzheimer's (see box). If you notice a gradual, progressive decline in memory, thinking and reasoning skills, including several of these ten signs, you should talk to your doctor. He or she may refer you to a neurologist or a neuropsychologist, who can perform a neuropsychological examination and evaluation. The Alzheimer's Association reports that doctors can diagnose the disease correctly up to 90 percent of the time.

Dublin resident Marie Dillon was diagnosed with Alzheimer's at the age of 54.

"It was really good that we found it so early," says Dillon. "Early diagnosis has made it possible for me to talk about my experiences and problems and to participate in awareness building activities for the Alzheimer's Association. The more people who know about this disease, the better."

"One of the benefits of being diagnosed early is that people can get involved in groups that can help support them," explains Gray.

The Alzheimer's Association has a number of groups for people in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease or a related disorder. Being part of a support group during the early stages of the disease can help people with Alzheimer's and their family members. It enables them to learn about available community resources instead of waiting until they have an urgent need or are in a crisis situation.

Having Alzheimer's can bring on painful or confusing emotions, and a support group offers information, emotional support and socialization among peers who face similar circumstances, in a tolerant and accepting atmosphere. It can also encourage communication between people with the diagnosis and their families about emotional and practical issues.

Dillon states that being part of a support group has been very helpful for her and her husband, Matt. Because they feel they are among their peers, she and her husband feel safe to talk openly. When a group member shares a problem, everyone tries to help them find a solution. In addition, outside speakers come in to talk about helpful subjects like nutrition.

"If I weren't part of the group, I don't think I'd be doing as well as I am," Dillon concludes.

Gray also coordinates support groups for family members, friends, and caregivers caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's disease or a related disorder throughout the East Bay, including a group sponsored by Washington Hospital in Fremont. The group meets from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on the last Wednesday of every month in the Conrad E. Anderson, MD Auditorium of the Washington West building next to the hospital. For more information about this Alzheimer's caregiver support group, call Washington's Health Connection at (800) 963-7070 or visit For more information about support groups in other Bay Area cities, call (800) 272-3900 or visit

For more information on Alzheimer's disease, visit

Watch for the warning signs of Alzheimer's

* Memory loss
* Difficulty performing familiar tasks
* Problems with language
* Disorientation to time and place
* Poor or decreased judgment
* Problems with abstract thinking
* Misplacing things
* Changes in mood or behavior
* Changes in personality
* Loss of initiative

If you or someone you know is experiencing several of these signs, it may not mean you have Alzheimer's. However, it does mean you should be examined by a medical specialist who is trained in evaluating memory disorders.

The Alzheimer's Association of Northern California will host its 4th Annual Circle of Care Conference on Saturday, November 22 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Foster City. The conference provides the opportunity for families and care professionals to learn about the latest research from prominent experts of Alzheimer's disease and dementia and connect with other family members and professionals. For more information, please contact the Alzheimer's Association at (650) 962-8111 or via email:

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