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Diagnosing Alzheimer's: New State Law Aims To Help

A new state law aims to provide better health care to the 100,000 Alzheimer's patients in Massachusetts.

The law, passed by the Legislature in July and signed by Governor Charlie Baker last month, contains mandates on health care providers designed to improve the detection of the incurable disease and other forms of dementia and deliver better treatment to patients.

Shirley Coffey of Boston is one of those patients. She is in her late seventies, but sometimes she can’t remember her age.

“I wake up in the morning and I have to remember … I have to replay what I did the day before so I know what day it is that I’m waking up to,” she told WGBH News.

Coffey said she first realized something was wrong when one day she didn’t recognize her granddaughter.

“This young lady comes in with this cute little 2-year-old and says, ‘Nana don’t you know who we are?’ And it took me a few minutes … their voices usually make me remember who they are,” she said, pausing at points.

This is not the razor-sharp mother Michael Kincade grew up with, but her symptoms were familiar. He saw the same ones years earlier in his grandmother.

After seeing the symptoms, Kincade found his mother a specialist, who diagnosed her with Alzheimer's.

“It wasn’t a surprise. We knew something was wrong, and then I realized that I was in mourning,” he said.

The new law mandates physicians, physician’s assistants, registered nurses and practical nurses complete a one-time continuing education course on the diagnosis and treatment of patients with cognitive impairments.

“We’ve often heard the problem in the primary care setting, where you will have someone go in and be diagnosed with a completely different condition — maybe it’s depression. Meanwhile, they’re in the early stages of the Alzheimer's disease and they’re not having any help in that disease process,” said Dan Zotos, director of public policy and advocacy for the Alzheimer’s Association of Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

The law also requires hospitals to develop and implement a plan for recognizing and managing patients with dementia no later than Oct. 1, 2021, four years after the law takes effect.

The law could have a greater impact on African Americans like Coffey.

“Black Americans are about twice as likely to be diagnosed with dementia as white populations. And Latino communities are about one and a half times as likely,” said Jonathan Jackson, director of the Community Access Recruitment and Education (CARE) Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Jackson said it is unclear why the disease is so much more prevalent among these racial-ethnic groups, but the disparities may be linked to other health issues.

“Black communities or Latino communities have higher rates of hypertension or diabetes, but there are a number other factors largely attributable to societal and structural barriers that also contribute to higher rates of dementia,” Jackson said.

For Coffey and her family, anything that offers help as she struggles to hang on to a lifetime of a memories is welcome.

“I can always tell you where I live … I think,” Coffey said. “Other than that, my grandchildren and my children. That’s it.”

Overall, the number of Alzheimer's patients statewide is expected to increase by 25 percent in the next decade.

WGBH News coverage is a resource provided by member-supported public radio. We can’t do it without you.
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