People are living longer, more active lives than ever before. As the mean age of populations rise, so does the prevalence of dementing disorders. Roughly one-quarter of people over the age of 80 have dementia. More than 47 million people live with dementia worldwide, approximately 3.5 million live in the U.S.. These numbers are expected to triple by 2050.
The good news is that patients are consulting their docs about potential symptoms earlier. And, early detection is the key to prolonging health, reducing healthcare costs and finding new therapies. The bad news is that the medical assessments used to measure brain health are not sensitive enough to distinguish normal aging from a potential problem, and there aren't enough specialists to go around. Only 5-10% of patients see a specialist.
Most patients present to their primary care docs, who shoulder the burden of detecting, diagnosing and treating most brain diseases. This is a tall order, given the complexity of early, accurate diagnosis. While Alzheimer's Disease is the most common dementia, there are many other common and uncommon types of dementing disorders that a doc needs to be able to identify.
Some common dementing disorders include vascular dementia (25%), Dementia with Lewy Bodies (15%), mixed dementia (15%), Parkinson’s Disease, frontotemporal disorders (10%) and Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease. Adding to the challenge of accurate diagnosis, there are also some conditions that mimic dementing disorders, like late-life depression, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome and normal pressure hydrocephalus. Unfortunately, autopsies of patients who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease show that a substantial percentage of those patients were mis-diagnosed. This is a real problem for therapeutic development and disease management, especially because mis-medication can exacerbate symptoms and potentially accelerate the disease course.
Early, accurate diagnosis is necessary for extending patient health and for developing new, targeted therapies. To accomplish this, primary care docs need reliable, scalable tools. Fortunately, new assessment methods are transforming detection and diagnosis. And, growing awareness is encouraging the development of tools that facilitate public participation in large-scale behavioral, genetics and molecular studies to move research forward.