03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

National Memory Screening Day: Promote Early Detection of Memory Problems

Here's a fact you haven't heard in the health care reform debate, but its impact over the next decade will be enormous: the incidence of Alzheimer's disease doubles every five years after age 65. With seniors on the threshold of a boom, Alzheimer's disease and related dementias could potentially overload our healthcare and long-term care systems in the years ahead.

November is National Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month. For the past six years, my organization, the Alzheimer's Foundation of America (AFA), has collaborated with local organizations to sponsor a community-based screening program called National Memory Screening Day. This year, National Memory Screening Day is Tuesday, November 17.

The goal of National Memory Screening Day is to promote early detection of memory problems as well as Alzheimer's disease and related dementias. The event encourages Americans to participate by offering free and confidential memory screenings at more than 2,100 screening sites across the nation.

AFA developed National Memory Screening Day to raise awareness and diminish the stigma and fear related to memory loss--and to get people talking openly about memory concerns and brain health. We know this event makes a difference. Our December 2008 study, "Memory Matters," found:

Screening is a safe, cost-efficient intervention that can reassure the healthy individual, promotes successful aging and, when indicated, directs individuals to appropriate clinical resources.

A memory screening is really just a simple and safe evaluation tool that assesses memory and other intellectual functions and indicates whether additional testing is necessary. The results of these screenings don't represent a diagnosis. For participants, especially those with a normal screen, memory screening provides a valuable opportunity to promote successful aging and prevention that may help reduce future risk. Our screeners encourage anyone with an abnormal score or who still has concerns to pursue a full medical exam.

Frankly, we promote these screenings because our healthcare system and federal government are doing an inadequate job of promoting early detection. Unlike cancer and heart disease, Medicare offers no benefit for early identification of memory problems or Alzheimer's disease and related dementias.

Unfortunately, discussions about memory concerns are not being held in physicians' offices, either because the healthcare professional or the patient is not raising the issue. An AFA survey of National Memory Screening Day participants in 2007 found that more than two-thirds of respondents self-reported memory complaints, but only one in five had discussed them with their doctors despite recent visits.

Part of the reason why dementia is not a priority is the mistaken belief that nothing can be done about it. While there is currently no cure for Alzheimer's disease or related dementias, early identification has its benefits: available treatments can help slow progression of symptoms; education and behavioral interventions can help with disease management; long-term planning and social services support for individuals with the disease and their families can ease daily challenges; and counseling and other support can even delay placing a loved one in a nursing home.

Not surprisingly, experts in this field get behind screening. AFA partners with 22 national organizations that have signed on in support of National Memory Screening Day 2009, including many professional societies whose members have expertise in Alzheimer's disease diagnosis and treatment: the American Academy of Neurology, the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry, and the American Psychological Association.

AFA is especially grateful to have Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), co-chair of the Congressional Task Force on Alzheimer's Disease, sponsor S.Res.185, a resolution supporting the goals and ideals of National Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month and National Memory Screening Day, including the development of a national health policy on dementia screening and care. Through Senator Warner's leadership, individuals with memory concerns will be empowered to make informed decisions to better manage their own health and improve their quality of life.

Unfortunately, with an issue as sensitive as Alzheimer's disease and related illnesses, there is often misinformation. For example, while public awareness programs based on a checklist of "warning signs" of Alzheimer's disease are gaining in popularity, they are not a substitute for a structured screening or consultation with a primary care provider. Actually, the "warning signs" of Alzheimer's disease have not been validated and some may actually be indicative of a number of other health issues, including everything from depression to transient ischemic attack.

Currently, our healthcare and long-term care systems are ill-prepared to manage the enormous influx of Americans who will present with symptoms of dementia. We can do better as a nation by expanding coverage, providing improved training for medical and care professionals, addressing eldercare workforce shortage issues, expanding resources for individuals with the disease and their family caregivers, and funding research to discover additional treatments. Ultimately, Alzheimer's disease will hit home for the majority of American families. We can't afford to ignore it any longer.