Diagnosing Alzheimer’s: Truth or Consequences

In a report released this week by the Alzheimer’s Foundation, a full 55% of Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers said their doctors never told them they had the disease. This seems shocking given the notion that physicians should act in their patients’ best interests, but in fact many never informed them. Why would there be a wall of silence around Alzheimer’s? Like dementia, Alzheimer’s is a degenerative condition that continues to have a stigma attached to it, a stigma that even can affect doctors. Many doctors, it seems, aren’t comfortable in telling their patients their diagnosis – perhaps they’re longtime friends and a range of emotions could result from the announcement, from embarrassment and denial to sadness and anger. Nonetheless, failure to disclose creates a host of costly problems down the road, from medical bills to risk for elder abuse.

Whatever a doctor’s reasons may be for concealing a diagnosis, such a harmful practice must change immediately. A physician is responsible for providing the patient the fullest picture possible of any changes in their health, be they physical or mental. How else, after all, is an elderly person who suffers from Alzheimer’s supposed to prepare for future challenges and eventualities without knowledge they even have the disease? Patient and family unawareness of the disease can be downright dangerous, and not only in medical situations or everyday circumstances. If we approach the matter from the perspective of estate law, we can see that a person’s deteriorating mental condition can play a role in faulty decisions, or even worse, leave them vulnerable to undue influence from a predatory party looking to seize assets. Without a clear Alzheimer’s diagnosis made early on, it could be easier for a perpetrator of elder abuse to manipulate their way to control of a victim’s estate. Dr. Pierre Tariot, the director of Banner’s Alzheimer’s Institute, agrees that physicians and care providers need to update their attitude toward discussing Alzheimers with patients, just as cancer diagnoses today at the very least come with a range of support options and information:

We do need to educate all providers to be aware that hesitance to give the diagnosis reduces the ability of the patient and family to make some choices and planning that is essential for emotional and financial well-being.

Indeed, Daniel Setareh, Fresno car accident lawyer and member of the Alzheimer’s Association even adds that the major studies in combating Alzheimer’s are directed at the beginning stages of the disease, meaning that early detection is even more crucial. The sooner doctors can be upfront about neurodegenerative diseases like dementia and Alzheimers, the greater the chance for patient safety.

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