Alzheimer's and the value of a correct diagnosis

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Alzheimer’s and the value of a correct diagnosis

July 20, 2017 - Ryan Denison, PhD

Few diseases we deal with today are as destructive and disheartening as Alzheimer’s. Watching loved ones slowly deteriorate to the point that they become little more than a shell of their former selves is one of the hardest things we can go through in this life, and the process is often even more frustrating for those with the disease. To make matters worse, it’s estimated that roughly one in ten Americans sixty-five and older suffer from Alzheimer’s, and there are currently no known cures. However, as The Washington Post‘s Tara Bahrampour writes, a recent study presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in London has shown those numbers may be misleading.

As Bahrampour describes, for much of our history “diagnosing Alzheimer’s has been a guessing game, based on looking at a person’s symptoms rather than testing for definitive evidence of the brain disorder.” In many instances, the disease couldn’t be confirmed without an autopsy. That’s not the case anymore, however, as doctors can now find physical evidence through a spinal tap or PET scan. The problem is that most insurance companies won’t pay for those tests because the disease itself is incurable and treatments are limited.

As a result, doctors usually just start prescribing drugs that could help if a person has Alzheimer’s without actually knowing if they do or not, and therein lies the problem. You see, if a PET scan or spinal tap shows that a person has amyloid plaque deposits, then it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have the disease, but it’s a strong indication that they’re heading down that path. If the tests come back negative, however, it’s definitive proof that they are Alzheimer’s free.

Of those tested in the study mentioned above, 45.7 percent of patients thought to have mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and 29.5% of those with suspected dementia showed no signs of the plaques. That means almost half of those being treated for MCI and nearly a third of those treated for dementia do not actually have the disease and their symptoms were the result of something else—perhaps even something that is treatable when diagnosed.

The hope is that these results will encourage insurance providers to make the tests an accepted part of the protocol for assessing the disease going forward so that the ill can get the best treatment possible. Given the associated costs, it will likely take more than one study to bring about that result, but it’s telling that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services—a government agency responsible for the coverage of roughly 100 million Americans—helped to underwrite the research. It would seem they understand that the best treatment has to start with the correct diagnosis.

As Christians, that’s a lesson we often fail to remember. When we’re struggling spiritually or going through a time where the Lord just seems distant, we frequently start by trying to pray more often, read the Bible more, or just generally trying to act more holy. Now, there’s nothing wrong with those actions, but the odds of them actually solving the problem are far less than if we’d started by simply asking God what’s wrong.

It could be that those feelings of separation and struggle are the result of some sin in our lives, but it could also be that the Lord is simply trying to get our attention. We won’t know one way or the other unless we take the time to ask. I can’t even begin to count, and honestly am scared to try, how many days, weeks, and months of my life have been wasted on trying to fix what ailed my walk with God when the biggest problem was that I never stopped to ask the great physician why I was spiritually sick in the first place.

So the next time you feel like your walk with the Lord is lacking in some way, start by going to him in prayer and wait for his answer before you try and fix that which might do nothing more than distract you from the real issue. After all, the God who was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice so that we might have a restored relationship with him is surely invested in helping that relationship be as strong as possible. Will you let him?

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the ESV®️ Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®️), copyright ©️ 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The ESV text may not be quoted in any publication made available to the public by a Creative Commons license. The ESV may not be translated in whole or in part into any other language.

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