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Scientists Update Alzheimer's Disease Guidelines

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

NPR's science correspondent Jon Hamilton is here in the studio to talk about all this. Jon, why are they making this change?

JON HAMILTON: The biggest reason is that right now most doctors are using diagnostic criteria that came out in 1984. Most researchers thought that if you didn't have a problem with memory or thinking, your brain was probably OK. But since then, it's become pretty clear that the brain can start to change a decade or more before it gets hard to remember things.

NORRIS: So, what is it that starts to change? What can they detect?

HAMILTON: And that's where it's not interfering with your life, you don't forget where you live or something, but if you do tests, you can see subtle changes that mean you just don't remember things or you don't think quite as clearly as you used to.

NORRIS: So if they can spot these things early on, what difference would that make?

HAMILTON: You know, right now the statistics show that there are more than five million people in the U.S. with Alzheimer's. But the scientists think that there are at least that many more people who have these less serious forms. So you could look like there was just this explosion in the Alzheimer's numbers.

NORRIS: Will this help people who have Alzheimer's?

HAMILTON: Now, you've got groups like the Alzheimer's Association that say, well, it can be helpful to know that, you know, you're in the earliest stages of this disease. Maybe you decide to draw up a will or arrange for long-term care. On the other hand, you have people who say, well, you know, learning that you have this thing that might be a terminal disease, you might not want to carry that information around with you.

NORRIS: Jon, are there other reasons to diagnose people earlier?

HAMILTON: And, also, if you're a scientist doing research on people with Alzheimer's disease, everybody agrees that if any of these treatments are going to work, they're probably going to work best on people in the very earliest stages. And so you can't try that out unless you've identified a bunch of those people and gotten them into scientific studies.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Jon Hamilton. Jon, thanks so much.

HAMILTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.