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Study: Excessive memory screenings may yield dementia misdiagnoses

September 13, 2013

There's no denying Alzheimer's disease is among the biggest senior living concerns. An estimated 5.4 million Americans have the disease, and it is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, despite the threat the disease poses to healthy aging, a recent study suggests aggressive pre-dementia screenings may needlessly diagnose some seniors and administering unnecessary treatments, according to findings published in the British Medical Journal.

There has been a growing call from politicians to increase screenings for pre-dementia, which is often referred to as mild cognitive impairment. The study, preformed by researchers in Australia and the U.K., suggests that slight changes to memory may not always be indicative of Alzheimer's. In fact, researchers found that if doctors expand diagnosis of Alzheimer's, it could result in about 65 percent of adults 80 and older being told they have the disease. Additionally, they determined that it could cause 23 percent of people to be misdiagnosed with dementia. The team says moving forward too quickly with new guidelines could be detrimental to the cause.

"Current policy is rolling out untested and uncontrolled experiments in the frailest people in society without a rigorous evaluation of its benefits and harms to individuals, families, service settings, and professionals," the authors wrote.

It's important to recognize the differences between mild cognitive impairment and mental health problems that could be more serious. The Alzheimer's Association notes that MCI is typified by cognitive changes that do not interfere with activities of daily living. Additionally, unlike Alzheimer's, some people with MCI can reverse their symptoms through exercise, memory care and engaging in mentally stimulating activities.