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New criteria for Alzheimer's may reduce diagnoses

A couple of weeks ago, we wrote about a new proposed definition of autism, which is expected to significantly reduce the number of children who are diagnosed with the disorder. Now, it appears that new criteria for a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease may have a similar effect, and may result in a significant drop in the number of people who are eligible for Social Security Disability benefits based on an Alzheimer's diagnosis.

Under the new criteria, many people who would previously have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's are now being found to have an ailment called "mild cognitive impairment," a significantly less serious brain disorder. Basically, the test is whether people have "functional independence" and dementia. If they are found to have the former and not the latter, they receive a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment.

However, the revised criteria have created a significant amount of confusion revolving primarily around the definition of "functional independence." A work group commissioned by the National Institute on Aging and the Alzheimer's Association states that people who have "mild problems" performing daily activities such as grocery shopping or paying their bills are still considered to be functionally independent.

According to a recent study, however, the new criteria will likely result in a significant decrease in Alzheimer's diagnoses. The study found that nearly 99 percent of people currently diagnosed with very mild Alzheimer's and 93 percent of people diagnosed with mild Alzheimer's would fall under the new definition of "mild cognitive impairment." Without an Alzheimer's diagnosis, they could lose access to Social Security Disability benefits and other essential community resources.

Source: Los Angeles Times, "Is it Alzheimer's or mild cognitive impairment?" Shari Roan, Feb. 6, 2012

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