For 30 years, Robyn Yale has been on a mission to raise awareness that people with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease can still lead rich, active lives. A licensed clinical social worker who practices in the San Francisco Bay Area, Yale says that the early stage of the disease is different from what happens in the middle and later stages. People in the early stages are healthy, high functioning, and in many cases able to express feelings, concerns, and experiences.
“At the beginning of the illness, a person is only having mild memory loss or confusion,” she says, “yet it’s significant enough to disrupt many aspects of life. People may find it difficult to stay at a job, or do certain things the way they were always able to do them. In many other ways, however, they are able to care for themselves, communicate, and be social.”
Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the leading cause of brain damage in old age, affecting one in eight adults over 65, and roughly half of those 85 and older.
Warning signs include poor judgment, loss of initiative, a tendency to misplace things, recent memory loss that affects job performance, problems with abstract thinking, a declining ability to perform routine tasks, and unusual changes in mood or behavior. While these signs alone do not indicate AD, early diagnosis is important to determine if these symptoms indicate a diagnosis of AD, another dementia, or a treatable condition.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the time from onset of symptoms until death ranges from three to 20 years. Yet most programs for people with the disease and their caregivers and families focus on later stages, when cognitive and physical impairments are pronounced and often agonizing, and the person with the disease may not be able to discuss his or her condition. Yale’s long crusade has helped spur a boom in early-stage support groups and education nationwide, primarily through the Alzheimer’s Association.
“We are refuting blanket stereotypes,” she says. “For years, family members in early stages had to go to existing support groups, where they would hear about all kinds of issues they were not ready to deal with — such as wandering, incontinence, nursing home placement. In early stages, they’re just beginning to learn how to face the disease and how to adjust family relationships.”
A world of possibilities
This new awareness of early-stage possibilities has also spurred new research and treatments. According to the American Medical Association, the most radical change on the horizon may be diagnosing Alzheimer’s before symptoms appear or when a patient has mild cognitive impairment, considered to be a precursor to the disease.
“What the new therapies are doing is pushing clinicians to make diagnoses earlier,” says Mark A. Sager, M.D., chief of operations of the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute at the University of Wisconsin Medical School at Madison. “The earlier you can diagnose someone with Alzheimer’s disease, the more likely you are to keep that person in the home and maintain their levels of functioning.”
The key to discovering and diagnosing early-stage AD is for family members to be observant — but not to overreact and jump to the inappropriate conclusion that any significant change in a loved one’s behavior is a sign of the disease. There are many steps in the process of diagnosing Alzheimer’s, including reviewing the family medical history, doing a physical exam to