The Ethics of Early-Stage Alzheimer’s Diagnosis

Huge steps have been made in diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease. Medical tests can now detect the brain changes of the disease at an early stage—even before patients are experiencing any symptoms. These tests can also predict who is at higher risk of developing the disease. Yet we are not close to a cure for Alzheimer’s, and the effectiveness of treatment has not kept up with the new advances in diagnosis. What does this mean for patients who receive a diagnosis before the symptoms are noticeable or affect their lives?

Dr. Jason Karlawish of the University of Pennsylvania Health System calls for establishing safeguards to protect these patients from discrimination, stigma, and threats to independence and autonomy that they might experience in the workplace, at the driver’s license bureau, in financial planning and so forth. He says, “We need to develop systems now, to navigate the challenges of a pre-clinical Alzheimer’s diagnosis.”

Karlawish, an expert on the ethics of early diagnosis, warns that while the new tests allow for improved treatment and planning, knowing the prognosis can also have negative consequences for patients. He cautions, “The discovery of pre-clinical Alzheimer’s disease may be how we prevent the tsunami of Alzheimer’s disease dementia, but we must not drown in the challenges created by our own discovery.”

The study appeared in the journal Neurology [optional: link to the journal article at http://www.neurology.org/content/77/15/1487.abstract?sid=4dd1c39e-1477-4139-bcc2-3ca0c5774bc0].

Copyright © IlluminAge AgeWise, 2013, reporting on a study from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.