Few diseases arouse so much fear as alzheimers, a fatal neurodegenerative disease that destroys memory and identity. The fear is compounded by the uncertainty that often surrounds the diagnosis of the most common form of dementia.
Brain autopsies remain the only way to know for sure if someone has had the disease, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believe affects 6.5 million people in the USA. In recent years, sophisticated tests such as lumbar punctures and specialized PET scans have become available, but they are invasive and expensive and not routinely used.
As a result, Alzheimer’s disease is frequently misdiagnosed, especially in the early stages. Other illnesses, including depression, may have similar symptoms and require other treatments.
But simple blood tests designed to help doctors diagnose Alzheimer’s disease are now on the market. Others are on the way. The tests are seen as an important scientific breakthrough, but have sparked debate over how and when to use them.
Some Experts say much more research is needed before the new tests can be widely rolled out, especially in primary care settings. Others say there is already sufficient information on the accuracy of certain tests. Everyone agrees that no test is perfect and doctors should always perform a full clinical evaluation.
Widespread use of the tests may take some time in the future – once insurance coverage improves and even more accurate next-generation tests become available. For now, none are covered by health insurance and private insurance coverage is uneven.