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A bigger problem is what to do after impairment or dementia has been diagnosed. Current treatments do not alter the course of Alzheimer’s, they just ease symptoms. Many doctors believe drugs are being given too late, after symptoms are severe, so researchers more recently have started testing some in people with mild cognitive impairment.

“If you’re only going to try them in people with advanced dementia, the chance of them working is not going to be that great,” said Dr. Guy McKhann of Johns Hopkins University, who headed one of the guideline panels.

Early diagnosis is a first step, and something the Alzheimer's Association has long advocated, Thies said.

“It allows people to anticipate what’s going to happen in the future and plan their lives in ways to minimize the impact,” he said. “People with the disease and their families cope better with their disease” if they know what to expect.

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Online:

National Institute on Aging: http://www.nia.nih.gov

Alzheimer's Association: http://www.alz.org