With McCain voters should consider odds of Alzheimer’s as they should with any candidate

The fact of the matter is that as we age, the chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease increase. There are relatively simple, if time consuming, psychological tests to increase the accuracy of predicting one’s odds. I was given a half hour version of the test on the phone before I could get long term health care insurance. Is such a test part of McCain’s public medical record?

Most people have a general idea of signs of Alzheimer’s or dementia, often from having a loved one with the disease. But there are also many misconceptions about what is normal and what should be of concern. There are many web sites which can be helpful. A good one is “Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s” (LINK) from the Alzheimer’s Association.

You can read this web page and click off your own list of indications that an individual, from John McCain to yourself, may need a medical work-up with a specialist.

To get a better idea of what the clinical tests entail, strongly recommended by doctors if you report the indications in the above web site in yourself or a loved one, this is from a 2005 study:

The strongly predictive tests were, in order of their power, a Paired-Associate Learning Test, which cued participants to recall five semantically related and five semantically unrelated pairs of words; and a Perceptual Identification Task, which measured how fast participants read aloud words briefly presented on a computer screen. To test implicit memory, experimenters repeated some words to see whether “priming” took place, which would help participants read those words faster.

On the word-pair memory test, people destined to develop Alzheimer’s disease didn’t do any better when words were related than when they weren’t. The authors think these participants may already have lost key knowledge of word attributes that normally help people to more easily remember words by means of their semantic associations. You can read a short summary of this study here.

While predicting who will develop Alzheimer’s and what its course will be is an inexact science at best, tests such as this one are still all we have at this time. They should be done by a qualified neuro-psychologist (a Ph.D.) or neurologist (an M.D.).

Alzheimer’s can develop well before the age of seventy, with an unfortunate few getting early onset Alzheimer’s in their fifties. Because it is a disease which effects to varying degrees crucial aspects of mental functioning we’d expect a president to have unimpaired, shouldn’t we demand that all candidates for this office have such testing done and the results reported to the public?

Democrats have recently been accused of using code words to refer to John McCain’s age, with commentators adding that ageism is now rearing its ugly head along with sexism and racism in this campaign.

However, there is a real issue when a candidate for president has demonstrated memory problems and misspoken words which could, and I emphasize could, be an early indication of Alzheimer’s.

It matter’s not that McCain is physically vigorous and quick with a retort, which aspects of his behavior used by his supporters to dismiss age as an issue.

What is important is indications in what he says that may indicate he is in the earliest stage of Alzheimer’s.

As many of us become older we become forgetful or we may garble our words or not say precisely what we mean. This is not necessarily a sign of Alzheimer’s. It may be caused by simple inattention or distraction, or even depression.

Perhaps John McCain has had a full neuro-psychological examination. This is not just a simple mental status exam done by his regular doctor. It is a series of tests that often takes a full day. If he has we deserve a report on the results. If he hasn’t, he should.

To be fair, Barak Obama should have the same tests.

Hal Brown is not a physician. If you have any concerns about a medical problem you should consult with your family doctor. Hal has been a clinical social worker and psychotherapist since 1971. He often writes about politics and politicians from a psychological perspective.