WEDNESDAY, July 20, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- A new international survey reveals that many people view Alzheimer's disease as a major health threat, fearing its onset nearly as much as they do cancer.
Conducted in France, Germany, Poland, Spain and the United States, the poll also found the vast majority of those surveyed would not hesitate to visit a doctor if they or a loved one showed the tell-tale symptoms of the disease. However, many did not realize that Alzheimer's is a deadly disease for which there is no truly effective test or treatment.
"What we have here are pretty surprising findings," said study co-author Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. "First, we found that there is an extraordinarily high level of willingness for people who have symptoms of confusion or memory loss to go in for some kind of an assessment. And previous surveys had not always showed such a high level of interest in that," he said.
"And then we also found that many believe there is an effective medical or pharmaceutical treatment to slow the progression of Alzheimer's. And also that a very substantial proportion of people are convinced that there are reliable medical tests available to give them a sense of where they're at," he added.
"No one had really asked about those two points before," Blendon explained. "So this indication of the optimism people seem to have about what can be done in terms of testing and slowing progression are really new, and very different from what most in the medical community would have expected to find."
Blendon is slated to join colleague Jean Georges, executive director of Alzheimer Europe, on Wednesday to present the results of the survey (funded in part by the pharmaceutical company Bayer) at the annual Alzheimer's Association International Conference, in Paris.
According to London-based Alzheimer's Disease International, roughly 36 million people are thought to suffer from dementia worldwide, a figure that is projected to spike to 115 million by 2050.
William Thies, chief medical and scientific officer of the Alzheimer's Association, noted that the United States will see its pool of Alzheimer's patients hit 16 million by 2050.
To explore public perceptions regarding the disease, Alzheimer Europe conducted phone interviews of nearly 2,700 adults over the age of 18 in Europe and the United States in February.
The results: citizens in most of the five countries surveyed considered Alzheimer's to be the second-most feared disease, after cancer, with Polish respondents ranking it third behind both cancer and heart disease. Between half and three-quarters of the respondents said they had known someone who had developed the disease.
Yet despite such fears, the majority of those surveyed did not view Alzheimer's as a killer. Only about one-third of Germans and Poles recognized the disease's deadly threat, a figure that rose only slightly (to between roughly 42 percent and 44 percent) among the French and Spanish. Only in the United States did a majority (61 percent) register a clear concern about the disease's ability to end a life.
But, there was no hesitancy on whether to seek medical attention if symptoms developed. Overall, between 85 percent and 95 percent of those polled said they would go in for a screening if they became confused or experienced memory problems. And that figure rose when a family member's well-being was at stake.
Surprisingly, many of those polled believed that testing and treatments are more advanced than is currently the case.
For example, between 38 percent and 59 percent expressed confidence in the existence of a reliable test for the detection of early-stage Alzheimer's, despite the fact that such a test is not yet a reality.
What's more, depending on the country, somewhere between one-quarter and two-thirds of respondents thought effective treatments were in place. That, noted the survey authors, is simply not true.
"What these findings suggest," said Blendon, "is that if we're going to run public health campaigns to encourage people to go in for assessments, we are also, at the same time, going to have to make sure that physicians are adequately prepared to discuss the facts with their patients, so that they have a realistic sense of what can and cannot currently be done with respect to Alzheimer's."
For more on Alzheimer's disease, visit Alzheimer's Disease International.