Nov. 1, 2002
My grandmother, Polly, was beloved in our little Mississippi hometown for her warm Southern hospitality, and for opening her roomy, comfortable old home to family and guests for any occasion. Even into her early 80s, she enjoyed a well-earned reputation as a formidable bridge player and as a sharp woman who possessed a flair for business that was ahead of her time.So, I knew something was wrong that fall, not too many years ago, when Polly and I were working on plans for a big family reunion at her house for Thanksgiving. Almost all of her far-flung extended family was preparing to come to her house for the occasion, and she was very excited. When I dropped by her house one September afternoon, she said proudly, Ive been cooking all morning! Ive already got the turkey cooked and the dressing made for Thanksgiving dinner.Puzzled, I walked into her kitchen, and sure enough, there sat a huge turkey, golden brown and cooling on the counter, along with several dishes full of cornbread dressing. Trouble was, the feast she had prepared was more than two months early.Distressed, I took the calendar off the kitchen wall and sat down with her, trying to explain to her that September was the month we were in, that there were many weeks to go before Thanksgiving, and that it was much too early to be cooking the turkey and dressing. But she just got more confused with the dates, more upset with me, and more anguished with her inability to comprehend the mistake.Alzheimers disease. It eventually stole my proud, feisty, sharp-as-a-tack, well-groomed grandmother, and left instead a confused, childlike, sad little old lady with flyaway white hair, who wandered in and out of downtown stores in stained clothes. Eventually, the disease sentenced her to a hospital bed next to her tall antique bed at home. Ultimately, long after it had robbed her of her mind, Alzheimers finished its work by taking her wasted body.November is National Alzheimers Disease Awareness Month. What do you, as clinical laboratorians, need to be aware of?Right now, there is no single diagnostic test that can definitively detect Alzheimers disease, or AD. Currently, the diagnostic process involves several different tests and criteria, and, according to the Alzheimers Association, its possible for physicians to make a diagnosis of AD with about 90 percent accuracy. An unambiguous diagnosis can only be made through an analysis of brain tissue during a brain biopsy or autopsy.The good news is that there progress is being made in the areas of screening and diagnostics. In 1996, a patent was issued for a method of detecting an individuals risk level for AD based on his or her apolipoprotein E (ApoE) genotype. There are now two new tests that use urine samples to detect biochemical markers associated with AD. One test detects the level of a brain protein called neural thread protein (NTP). The other urine test, expected to be available for clinical use in about two years, detects free radical damage in the brain.In early October, an announcement was made about new research findings from involving an imaging technique that detects imbalances in brain signals. It is hoped that this technique might eventually be developed into a screen for early-stage AD.What do you, as a person with an elderly grandparent, parent, or spouse, need to know about this frightening disease? The Alzheimers Association stresses the importance for people with dementia and their families of receiving help as soon as possible. They have compiled a list of 10 warning signs of Alzheimers: memory loss, difficulty performing familiar tasks, problems with language, disorientation to time and place, poor or decreased judgment, problems with abstract thinking, misplacing things, changes in mood or behavior, changes in personality, and loss of initiative. If you recognize any of these warning signs in yourself or a loved one, call a physician. Early diagnosis is important. For more information, go to the Alzheimers Association website at
And dont forget to count your blessings! Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.Celia Stevens
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