Medicare research study suggests many patients treated for Alzheimer’s do not have the disease

Do you know anyone with Alzheimer’s Disease?  If you do, then you may be aware that it can a rather time-consuming process for the patient to receive a diagnosis.  Alzheimer’s is one of those conditions in which the physician generally has to look to the patient’s symptoms without the benefit of a definitive, objective test to confirm the diagnosis,  The disease is marked by the presence of amyloid plaques in the brain, but until recently those deposits were only detectable by an autopsy.

Physicians can now use a PET scan to detect the presence of the amyloid plaques.  A positive finding does not necessarily mean that the patient has the disease, but it does correlate with an increased risk of the disease.  A negative finding (or the absence of amyloid plaques) means that the patient does not have Alzheimer’s and the physician should continue to search for a different diagnosis and treatment.  Unfortunately, most insurers (and Medicare) refuse to pay for the cost of a PET scan so physicians have to rely on a myriad of subjective complaints related by the patient and family.

It should probably not come as a surprise that the accuracy of such diagnoses is not very good.  A recent study by Medicare indicates that almost 50 % of the patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s do not actually have the amyloid plaques that are indicative of the disease.  Scientists hope that Medicare and insurers will consider paying for PET scans so that physicians can make a more accurate diagnosis.  Researchers are also working on creating a blood test that could be administered in a physician’s office to confirm the presence of amyloid plaques.  You can read more about the study and its possible effect on diagnosis, treatment, and management of Alzheimer’s Disease in this excellent Washington Post article by Tara Bahrampour.