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Alzheimer's is often a disease that is not recognized until it is too late for its victims and their families to make preparations for long-term care. A new, simple, non-invasive test may enable early detection of this devastating disease.

Dementia of any kind is a devastating diagnosis both for the patient and for family and friends. In most of the industrialized world, the most common form of dementia is Alzheimer's disease, which has been identified in 5.4 million people in the United States alone, over 200,000 of them under the age of 65. Epidemiologists expect that 11 to 15 million Americans could be in care for the disease by 2050. 

Alzheimer's disease is no less common in other countries. Researchers have found that French women who carry three out of four genes specific to Alzheimer's have a 35 percent risk of developing the condition by age 85, and those who carry four out of four genes for the disease have a 68 percent risk. Even in places like China, Korea, India, and Nigeria, Alzheimer's is commonly diagnosed in people as young as 40.

Alzheimer's is not curable. No one ever recovers from it. It would seem to be the kind of thing that you would just rather not know you are destined to face. However, there are some good reasons that the disease should be recognized as soon as possible, such as these:
  • Even though Alzheimer's disease is not curable, it is somewhat treatable. The sooner patients are diagnosed, the sooner they can get treatments that may slow down the progression of the disease and keep them communicative and active longer.
  • Families and other caretakers need time to prepare for long-term care. A pronouncement that a loved one cannot return home after a hospitalization, that he or she has to be put into long-term care immediately and will never go home, isn't just devastating to the patient. It is also devastating to the family. Even the most basic nursing home care, in the United States, will cost $1,000 a week or more. This has to be paid by the patient or the patient's family in cash, unless the patient goes on Medicaid. Every state has a Medicaid program for Alzheimer's patients, but no state allows the patient and the patient's spouse to retain more than $3,000 in non-exempt assets. Otherwise, savings, retirement plans, investments, cars, second homes, and even furniture may have to go, not just for the patient, but for the husband or wife of the patient. Alzheimer's patients who receive Medicaid in the USA cannot even retain savings for a decent funeral and burial. There are things that can be done to lighten these burdens with a few (usually three or four) years to prepare.
  • Resources for dealing with Alzheimer's are available, but families and patients in crisis mode cannot usually find them. An American friend of mine had to put his father into a nursing home after an infection greatly accelerated the course of his dementia. His father did not have a clear power of attorney, in fact, he had two contradictory powers of attorney. His father did not have a clear advanced directive. He had filled out multiple advanced directives. This made it impossible for my friend to access social services and counselors and at-home care to keep his father at home just a little bit longer, and the father died just six weeks after being placed in a nursing home. 
Time to prepare for Alzheimer's makes a huge difference. PET scans of the brain can be used to identify the disease, but a new "spit test" is faster, cheaper, and easier.
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