Impaired Memory May Not Be a Sign of Alzheimer’s Disease

Failing memory may be a symptom of a treatable and reversible condition and not always a sign of Alzheimer’s disease, Danish scientists reported today at World Alzheimer Congress 2000.

Less than half the people surveyed in the new study with impaired memory were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia. “Overall, we found that 35 percent of the patients we saw had a potentially treatable concomitant condition that could influence cognitive function,” explained Gunhild Waldemar, M.D., associate professor of neurology at Copenhagen University Hospital and director of the Copenhagen Memory Clinic.

“It’s important to realize that the appearance of memory problems do not necessarily signal Alzheimer’s disease or some other incurable neurologic condition,” said Waldemar. “If the underlying cause of the memory problem is one that can be treated, it’s important to identify it so therapy can begin.”

Waldemar added, “Because people with Alzheimer’s can have accompanying conditions that are treatable, it’s important to identify these other diseases and institute whatever measures are necessary. This could help improve cognitive function and forestall the development of more severe symptoms.”

The most frequently associated conditions the researchers diagnosed were depression, high blood pressure, and thyroid disease. Other potentially reversible underlying causes identified were hydrocephalus (an abnormal amount of fluid within or around the brain) and alcohol dependence syndrome.

Over a period of 40 months, Waldemar, and her colleagues examined 785 patients with memory problems. Only 43 percent were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia. Six percent had selective amnesia and 11 percent were found to have some other cognitive deficit. Twenty-eight percent had no serious cognitive deficits and 12 percent were not classified.

In six percent of the patients with Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia, the researchers found that a potentially reversible primary cause of the memory disorder existed. This does not mean, however, that Alzheimer’s disease is reversible, the researchers explain. It does mean that some people with the illness may have an accompanying condition that contributes to or causes memory loss.

“This is a very interesting study that underscores the importance of recognizing the warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease and seeking an early and accurate diagnosis,” says Bill Thies, Ph.D., vice president of medical and scientific affairs for the Alzheimer’s Association (U.S.A.). “The Alzheimer’s Association in the United States developed a checklist, the 10 Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s disease, to help family members, health care professionals and others recognize signs of the disease early. Being aware of cognitive changes in a loved one are important whether it is for Alzheimer’s disease or for treating a potentially reversible condition.”

Alzheimer’s disease is a fatal, progressive, degenerative disease that attacks the brain and results in impaired memory, thinking and behavior. Memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s is so severe that it interferes with an individual’s daily functioning and eventually results in death.

The Alzheimer’s Association (U.S.A.) assumed leadership of the world’s largest international conference on Alzheimer’s disease, World Alzheimer Congress 2000. Over a 10-day span, world leaders in Alzheimer research and care united in July 2000, marking the first time these Alzheimer specialists have come together for the purpose of sharing information on research and care to improve the lives of people affected by Alzheimer’s disease. This unique gathering of scientists, healthcare professionals and other specialists was the collaborative effort of the Alzheimer’s Association (U.S.A.), Alzheimer’s Disease International, and the Alzheimer Society of Canada.

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