Alzheimer’s Screening - Is It Worth It?

Gemma Fox

Alzheimer's Disease, and other forms of dementia, are dreaded by many. Today, dementia is the living nightmare in which four to five million Americans (and their loved ones) are trapped. And, while rates of dementia are dropping percentage-wise, the large size of our ageing population means that numbers of cases overall are on the increase. Dementia is a cruel and distressing phenomenon, which slowly robs people of their memories, their personalities, and ultimately, their minds. Little surprise, therefore, that many people are working as hard as they can on ‘dementia prevention’ techniques, and signing up for Alzheimer’s screening and the like. But is there really much point in this?


Why Screen For Something You Can’t Cure?

‘Alzheimer’s Screening’, and tests to catch the early symptoms of encroaching dementia, are not difficult to access. The internet is full of ‘dementia screening tests’ (most of which should be taken with a pinch of salt), and any good doctor will be able to test you for both your dementia risk and early signs that you may be succumbing to dementia. There are also genetic markers – particularly gene APOE-e4 – which indicate that a person may be at higher risk than others of developing Alzheimer’s in the future. Genetic screens for this and other risk genes can be done, but they’re controversial, and many doctors will caution against them. This is partly because such genetic tests in no way indicate that a person will definitely get Alzheimer’s. That can only as yet be determined once the disease has already begun. Doctors can use neurological exams, and perhaps even brain scans to screen for signs of Alzheimer’s - in some cases, enabling them to catch the disease in relatively early stages.

However, there is still no cure for dementia. Scientists believe that a cure is on the way, which has led to promises from nations like the UK to implement national screening programs, but as yet no cure exists. As things stand at the moment, the best one can hope from catching dementia early is to have a little extra time to prepare for the onslaught to come. Something which, arguably, is impossible to prepare for. Is it worth putting people through the trauma of knowing that they have developed or are likely to develop dementia, if nothing can be done about it? Is it not better to live in blissful ignorance?


Delaying The Inevitable

There are drugs available to treat various forms of dementia. Alzheimer’s in particular is becoming more ‘treatable’ as research advances. We are now able to slow down the progress of the disease - although we cannot halt it in its tracks. It could be argued that screening is valuable in that it catches symptoms very early - allowing doctors to slow the disease right down before it has a chance to do much significant damage to the patient’s brain. However, the rate at which the disease progresses - even with modern drugs - will vary from patient to patient, and some may still suffer a rapid decline.



Were a remedy to be developed which could either prevent or cure dementia, then screening would undoubtedly be of use. Having the ability to prevent the disease from ever taking hold in susceptible people, or stopping it completely in its tracks, would certainly make screening more than worthwhile. However, as yet, all we can really do is slow the disease down a little, and advise people to make ‘anti-dementia’ lifestyle choices. Brain-games, healthy living, learning new languages - all of these are credited with reducing dementia risk. However, when the science is studied, it transpires that most of the things we do to reduce dementia risk actually need to be carried out consistently, decades before the ‘risk’ period. By the time most people nowadays are ‘screened’ for dementia, the time where preventative interventions could have been effective is long past.


To Screen Or Not To Screen?

At the end of the day, it’s up to the individual whether or not they’d like to be screened for dementia. Some people find it comforting to be ‘prepared’ for dementia, and to have the agony of uncertainty removed. Others would rather not know until it becomes a problem, in order to spare themselves the unnecessary trauma of worrying about something they can’t do anything about. Should cures or prevention come into play, screening would certainly be very useful indeed. At the moment, however, it’s up to the individual. Anyone with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia in their family can perhaps reduce their own risk of developing the disease by playing ‘brain training’ games, keeping their brain active, and generally living a healthy lifestyle. The sooner these ‘risk-cutting’ interventions begin, the better. However, it’s also worth noting that these measures only reduce the risk of developing dementia. They do not eliminate it completely.


Gemma Fox is a freelance writer
She can be contacted through the editor.


Updated July 2017
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