Harvard Women's Health Watch

New Alzheimer's guidelines define early stages of the disease

Changes in the brain are detectable years before devastating memory loss.

In April 2011, the National Institute on Aging and the Alzheimer's Association released revised guidelines for the diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease (AD), including criteria for spotting the disease before it develops into full-blown dementia. The guidelines also address the experimental use of biomarkers that may help diagnose AD earlier. (A biomarker is a measurable substance or condition in the body that can indicate the presence or absence of a disease.) The revised guidelines and criteria appeared online April 19, 2011, in the journal Alzheimer's & Dementia (www.alzheimersanddementia.org/content/ncg).

More than five million people in the United States have been diagnosed with AD. By 2050, barring breakthroughs in prevention or treatment, about 16 million will be affected. The view is emerging that AD is a process that starts years before it becomes a problem, much like hypertension, cancer, and heart disease. Experts hope this way of thinking about the disease will help to accelerate research on early detection and ways to prevent the disease or delay its onset.

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