A large survey has found that most people would rapidly seek medical advice if they developed symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. The survey covered 2,678 adults in the U.S., Germany, France, Spain and Poland.
It focused on the public perception and awareness of Alzheimer’s disease, and was carried out by Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Mass., and the nongovernmental organization Alzheimer Europe. Findings were presented on July 20 at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2011, held in Paris, France.
More than 85 percent of respondents would want to see a physician if they were experiencing confusion or memory loss, to find out if the symptoms were due to Alzheimer’s disease. A very high rate (over 94 percent) said they would want the same for a family member.
Other symptoms of the disease include difficulty with language and the ability to communicate, inability to perform previously routine tasks and personality and mood changes.
Alzheimer’s was the second biggest health fear after cancer in four of the five countries, above six other major diseases, with about a quarter of respondents fearing it more than cancer.
The majority of respondents (between 54 and 77 percent) had experience of Alzheimer’s disease in someone they know or have known. Common symptoms were recognized by at least 86 percent.
Heike von Lutzau-Hohlbein of Alzheimer Europe commented, “The results demonstrate the importance of being honest with patients when diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease.
“As a former carer myself, I recognize how valuable it is for people to have firstly a name for all the uncertainties of their condition and then have the time to get their affairs in order. It will always be difficult to receive such a diagnosis but doctors need to empower patients and their loved ones to take the appropriate steps.
“The findings also show there is high awareness of Alzheimer’s disease, which is a testament to the success of the many awareness campaigns co-ordinated by Alzheimer societies.”
Dr. Robert J. Blendon, Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at Harvard said, “Across all five countries, if people had symptoms of confusion and memory loss that they thought might be Alzheimer’s, they were quite interested in getting the assessment of whether or not it was. [This is] much larger than many people would have anticipated.
“Many of the public have high expectations about the possibilities of treatment alternatives and medical testing. It is important for doctors to talk to patients about what treatment and testing options are or are not available.
“A very significant number of people — about two-thirds — said they would very likely get a test [for Alzheimer’s] in the absence of symptoms. And that raises a whole series of issues if we ever had a test to recommend.”
Studies are currently under way on retinal scans, on blood tests, and on spinal fluids that may eventually be able to detect Alzheimer’s in its earliest stages, before symptoms appear.
Dr. Blendon added that the majority of people are sure there is going to be a breakthrough on this illness through medical science over the next five years. “And so, the worrisome side is, you’re going to have people coming in, expecting something,” he said. “The positive side is, this is going to be a sea change pressure for more medical research. If you believe that the darkness can be pushed away by medical research, you’re going to want your governments to do more of this.”
Florence Lustman, of the French Alzheimer Plan, added, “Alzheimer’s is a fatal condition that affects most people’s lives at some time. One of the key priorities of the French Alzheimer’s Plan is early diagnosis, and the survey results support this focus. The findings demonstrate overwhelming public support for receiving diagnosis.”
Only about 40 percent of the survey respondents realized that Alzheimer’s is a fatal condition. But in high income countries, it is the seventh highest cause of death, and the only one in the top ten for which there is no cure. This was not widely known among the survey respondents. Between 27 and 63 percent thought there was an effective treatment to slow its progression or improve the symptoms.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for over 60 percent of all cases. It affects 5.4 million people in the U.S.
Blendon, R. J. et al. Key Findings from a Five-Country Survey of Public Attitudes about Alzheimer’s Disease. Poster presented at AAIC, July 2011.
Alzheimer’s Association, 2011 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures, Alzheimer’s & Dementia, Volume 7, Issue 2.