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August 11th, 2010
05:18 AM ET

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Study shows testing for Alzheimer's is accurate

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
CNN Chief Medical Correspondent

Even back when I was a medical student, we were taught Alzheimer’s disease (AD) began to cause damage in the brain years, perhaps decades before one’s memory started to fade.

The big question, of course, was how could you possibly screen for the disease before problems emerged? As things stood for a long time, the only way to know for sure if someone had AD was at the time of autopsy. In fact, the disease is named after Alois Alzheimer, a neuropathologist, who in 1906, diagnosed the disease by using special stains of the brain after a patient’s death.

Over the years, there have been sophisticated tests such as PET and MRI scanning, which can help diagnose a patient, but are often better at excluding other causes of memory loss rather than confirming early AD. In short, there has been no great screening test for Alzheimer’s disease.

That may all start to change today, based on a new study from the Archives of Neurology. The authors have conducted a study showing a spinal-fluid test can be nearly 100 percent accurate in identifying patients who have mild memory loss now, and will go on to develop AD.

Think about that for a second. I have seen so many patients with mild memory loss who ask the question – is this the beginning of Alzheimer’s disease? The truth is, as a medical community – we were not sure. This test could provide that answer. Read more

Sound off: We want to hear from you this morning. Add your comments to the LIVE Blog below and we'll read some of them on the show.

Filed under: Health • LIVE Blog
soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. Lee Denny

    I was one of the GM dealers closed by GMAC last year. The stress was incredible and I am being treated for depression. My short term memory, especially for names has been awful. My psychiatrist tells me that while it is not likely to be the cause, scientists have linked extreme stress to dimentia and altzeimers. Can you comment and would this be a reason for the test. What about prevention?

    August 19, 2010 at 9:25 am |
  2. Dr. Mize

    No way was the Toyota problem an over-reaction. And I am sick to death of hearing about driver error with respect to the Toyota sudden (and unstoppable) acceleration problem. I heard every word of testimony of those poor sould before Congress - people who STOOD atop their brakes to no avail; people who were having to decide to crash their vehicles so they wouldn't hurt anyone else but themselves in those death-traps they were driving. A car company that builds the systems that fail may also have failures in their diagnostic systems. Failure in appropriate telemetry. Everything must be stripped-away to discern the causes. "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be..." why those cars failed, to borrow some logic from Sherlock Holmes. There is a failure of imagination at work in the diagnoses of Toyota's runaway vehicles, so they must NOT stop looking until they can come up with a better answer than driver error. Because those drivers who spoke to Congress were NOT in error: their floor mats weren't to blame; and their pedals did not stick–get a better answer than these, I say to the industry, and don't report back unless you have something of value to report (even if that is finding accidentally-located problems). Driver error won't cut it!

    August 12, 2010 at 7:55 am |
  3. Chris

    The main reason many job postings are not getting filled is due to the fact that most companies want someone who has experience doing the particular job posted. Not transferable skills. They are unwilling to train qualified applicants. If they really needed to fill the position they would do so, but since they feel they can wait for that perfect applicant the jobs go unfilled and they call it productivity increase.

    August 11, 2010 at 12:53 pm |
  4. Gena Halpin

    Interesting...we would ALL love to be able to be tested for the dreaded Alzheimer's disease. Will we all be able to afford the taps ? If not, is insurance going to pick up the tab. Something that perhaps could have early prevention (?) but not everyone will be able to afford the necessary testing.

    August 11, 2010 at 9:31 am |
  5. Ron

    I have a severe lumbar injury and had an epidural (which is similar to what he described) to relieve pain in the region. Dr. Gupta aptly described the procedure to obtain CSF, but he didnt let the users know the side effects of the procedure if not done correctly.

    I had the epidural and they pierceed the dural sac (he briefly described it) and it leaked an amount of CSF that produced migraine headaches that were absolutely incapacitating. A bizarre procedure called a blood patch was done to plug the hole and relieve the pain.

    Be careful and get a Dr. well-vsersed in the procedure.

    August 11, 2010 at 9:09 am |
  6. Sue I

    So finding out you have Alzheimers leads to what? Just gives you time to begin to fixate on the disease and start imagining its advancement. The story I want to see is that an inexpensive cure has been found or better yet a preventative medicine has been developed.

    The health care system in this country is truly broken and sadly I don't see it getting fixed so that ALL Americans will be able to afford health care.

    August 11, 2010 at 8:48 am |
  7. James jones

    Hi karen does alzheimers effect people that play sport

    August 11, 2010 at 8:40 am |
  8. Pauly


    Thanks for the well wishes. I agree w/ you about our health care system. I wrote many politicians before, during & after the health care debate. Mostly to argue that they didn't know what they were talking about when proclaiming our health care system the best in the world. WHO ranks us #37, one behind Costa Rica.

    Unfortunately, my situation isn't unique as many would like people to think. The Discovery Health Channel has a series called Mystery Diagnosis. It's a true reality show where they talk to the actual patients & doctors who finally dx'd them after many trips to doctors & hospitals. Sometimes, it took years for conditions that weren't that rare.

    Too many times when original blood tests or imaging tests don't immediately show the problem, the symptoms are blown off. Many times people are referred to psychologists or psychiatrists for their symptoms even though they had medical problems like Lyme Disease. Despite popular belief, this usually can't be dx'd w/ a simple blood test. At least not a single one. The same is true for other conditions as well.

    In the old days, doctors used to search through books to find the cause of their patients suffering. Now w/ the info a click away, They don't have time to research. Prescribing pills for the symptoms is easier than finding the cause. It's also more profitable since many doctors receive rewards from the pharmaceutical co's & because a patient who is not cured has to come back time after time.

    The argument that health care costs would go down if you protected more doctors from being sued is ridiculous. Malpractice rates would go down if doctors were more concerned about their patients & quit making avoidable mistakes. If you or I don't get a traffic ticket and/or avoid car accidents, our auto insurance rates go down. If doctors & hospitals quit making mistakes or exposing their patients to diseases, their malpractice rates would go down.

    August 11, 2010 at 8:25 am |
  9. pfriday

    any update on the young lady you profiled tuesday in the prescription drug piece? she had been sober for 42 days and recently moved home – the reporter and producer had not been able to track her down for some time.

    August 11, 2010 at 7:46 am |
  10. Dan in Lafayette,IN

    Hi guys, boy these Taliban are very sick people when they refuse our help for the flood victims in Pakistan. I wish the world would see that America helps societies and the Taliban destroys them!

    August 11, 2010 at 7:42 am |
  11. Pauly

    @Art. Good morning. It's true that there's no cure for Alzheimers & some would consider such a dx as a death sentence. However, being able to get a correct dx sooner rather than later can provide peace & relief to the sufferer. For one thing, a spinal tap is much cheaper than the other tests that can't actually dx the disease.

    Though there is not a cure, there are therapies that can slow down the progression. Also, an early dx can avoid the financial burden of going to several specialists & undergoing many tests only to be left w/ more questions. The money saved could be used to live life to the fullest before the disease progresses and/or help secure the financial future of your loved ones. Finding out you have an incureable disease in the final stages of it can be a tremendous burden on the patient & everyone close to the patient.

    August 11, 2010 at 7:42 am |
  12. Michael Armstrong Sr.

    This is not good with Steven Slater this is all America needs is a bunch of copy cats putting peoples lives in danger .

    August 11, 2010 at 7:35 am |
  13. Michael Armstrong Sr.

    Steven Slater is no folk hero he is is a dangerous person who by the grace of god hurt no one when he threw a tantrum .

    August 11, 2010 at 7:29 am |
  14. MeLoN

    Congress passes a bill but raids 12 BILLION dollars from the food stamp program to pay for it???... Brillant idea!

    I guess the US Government thinks Americans are too fat anyways.

    August 11, 2010 at 7:25 am |
  15. art

    @ pauly

    It saddened me to read what you have to ponder everyday concerning your health. I have a political colleague where I live who has some unique challenges also, and he has had some success with doctors in, Costa Rica. I'm writing this because our medical system doesn't make sense to me anymore.

    To your good health.

    August 11, 2010 at 7:14 am |
  16. Pauly

    The problem is that doctors find all kinds of reasons to avoid spinal taps, (lumbar punctures), these days. I have been literally begging for one for a couple of years now. No, I'm not crazy nor do I get a thrill from painful procedures.

    Since many of my undiagnosed symptoms are neurological, an LP would have been one of the 1st tests ordered a decade ago. Especially since other tests suggest an auto-immune disorder or systemic infection attacking my nervous system. One doctor even refused to order a LP because it would cause whatever infection I had to spread. (While she was also denying I had a systemic infection) Others have said LP's are only to dx brain cancer & I don't have brain cancer. I was even hospitalized w/ suspected meningitis but it was r/o without an LP which is the most reliable test for that condition.

    I'm told I'm a "medical mystery." I could accept that if they did tests & all the results were negative. Doctors rely too much on CT's these days. CT's, and the radiologists reading them, often miss potential problems that can lead to a proper dx. And other doctors rely on the radiologist's report rather than the actual films. One such report said the imaged swollen lymph nodes "appear to be benign." Therefore other doctors said a biopsy isn't necessary.

    Another radiologist stated 2 holes in my thoracic spine could be bone islands though he admitted in the same report that "these are non-specific on CT"! Doctors now suggest non-specific means irrelevant & refuse further testing. EMG's pointed to another lesion in my lumbar spine. Along w/ dx's of "non-specific vertigo" & "unspecified migraines", these & other test results cry out for a LP. Yet, I can't find a doctor who will order one. Maybe now, if I start showing signs of Alzheimers, a doctor will order one. I seriously doubt it though.

    August 11, 2010 at 6:50 am |
  17. art

    Well, okay, there's a test that is close to 100% accurate. But there still is no cure, even though the disease was first diagnosed in 1906.

    The diagnosis, in most cases, is almost always as fatal as the disease.

    I hate to say this, but this appears to be another opportunity for the medical profession to create another cottage industry within the profession as they have with cancer.

    Are there any breakthroughs in research with regard to a cure for Alzheimers?

    August 11, 2010 at 6:47 am |
  18. MeLoN

    Good Morning CNN!

    Don't know much about Alzheimers as a disease but only personally as it affected my grandmother before she passed away. Very sad indeed. Hopefully the medical community can find a cure for this dreadful condition.

    August 11, 2010 at 6:14 am |
  19. Randall of Texas

    The United States is in two wars. Is there any reporting on it ?

    August 11, 2010 at 6:07 am |