Primary care providers should screen seniors for decline in memory and thinking skills | Alzheimer's Prevention Registry

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June 19, 2019

Primary care providers should screen seniors for decline in memory and thinking skills

By Alzheimer's Prevention Bulletin

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Currently, 5.8 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Association 2019 Facts and Figures report, this number could grow to 14 million by 2025. This annual report is chockful of statistics about the burden of Alzheimer’s disease in the United States.

The numbers are truly staggering.

This report places a national focus on the impact of Alzheimer’s and other dementias.  It is a valuable tool to educate our nation’s leaders about the state of the disease and to advocate for medical research funding.

Here are just a few of the hundreds of statistics in the report:

  • More than 16 million Americans provide 18.5 billion hours of unpaid care to people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias
  • In 2019, Alzheimer’s and other dementias will cost the nation $290 billion. By 2050, it could rise as high as $1.1 trillion.
  • Only 16% of seniors receive cognitive assessments during regular checkups
  • One in three seniors die with Alzheimer’s or other dementias

An overwhelming toll on caregivers

We asked Sarah Kremen, MD, Director of Clinical Trials programs at the Mary S. Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research at UCLA and Principal Investigator for California’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center at UCLA, what she thinks is most significant in this 90-page report. First, she said, is the formidable numbers about caregivers.

“Alzheimer’s takes a significant toll on caregivers,” says Dr. Kremen. “The number of unpaid hours caregivers spend providing and managing care is extraordinary. As a result, caregivers often have poorer health and lead more stressful lives.”

It is important for caregivers to take care of themselves so they can be better caregivers to their loved ones.

Focus on Primary Care

The second area is the special report on primary care. “Primary care doctors are often best positioned to evaluate people for memory and thinking problems,” says Dr. Kremen. “They know their patients best, and presumably patients have good relationships with their doctors.”

The report found that while a majority of seniors expect their doctors to assess their memory and thinking skills, most physicians are waiting for their patients or their family members to report symptoms or ask for an assessment.

All Medicare Part B recipients can get an Annual Wellness Visit that includes a brief cognitive assessment. Seniors should ask their doctors for this exam, especially if they are concerned about their memory and thinking.

“As a specialist, I’m hoping to see more early detection of memory and thinking problems by primary care doctors,” says Dr. Kremen.  “Just as they now manage conditions such as depression in their offices, they can also manage dementia for many patients. That’s why organizations like the Gerontological Society of America and the California Alzheimer’s Disease Centers are developing tool kits to help doctors assess and treat problems with memory and thinking, especially in the early stages.”

What does it mean for you?

We cannot possibly share all the details of the report in this article. So Dr. Kremen gave us a few ways you could use the findings:

  1. Stay informed – learn about memory and thinking problems from reliable sources (e.g. your physician, local and national Alzheimer’s non-profits).
  2. Talk to your primary care doctor if you have any concerns.  Be persistent. Ask for a referral if necessary.
  3. Ask your doctor for an annual cognitive assessment.
  4. Medicare beneficiaries should also ask their doctors for an Annual Wellness Visit.
  5. If you are a caregiver, make time for yourself and your health needs. Read more about caregiving resources on our website.
  6. Reduce your risk for memory and thinking problems later in life by staying healthy now:
    1. Exercise 30 minutes every day
    2. Eat nutritious foods
    3. Get enough sleep
    4. Stay engaged in social and cognitive activities.
    5. Follow these four steps for improving your heart and brain health.