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Stony Brook Medicine neuropsychologist Dr. Brian Lebowitz led a study on diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease. Though new Alzheimer’s cases are identified every day, the difficulty in diagnosing the disease early remains the same. PHOTO CREDIT: STONY BROOK UNIVERSITY.

As the baby boomers age, neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease have become more prevalent in society. Despite the increasing number of cases, correctly diagnosing the disease continues to be a challenge for the medical community.

A recent study lead by Brian Lebowitz, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor of neurology at Stony Brook University’s School of Medicine, has shed some light on the difficulty of early Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

Lebowitz’s study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, found that individuals with a history of a reading disorder perform similarly to individuals with mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, on neuropsychological tests. MCI is a condition characterized by memory complaints and poor performance on neuropsychological tests, but the individual otherwise functions normally.

“Having MCI is a strong risk factor associated with cognitive decline leading to neuropsychological diseases such as Alzheimer’s,” Lebowitz said.

Lebowitz investigated if having a reading disorder compromises neuropsychological test performance. The individuals who had a history of a reading disorder had difficulty processing language early in life, and there is good reason to believe that reading disorders can persist throughout life.

“People who were poor readers, the bottom 10 percent of readers, were disproportionately represented with people who performed poorly on neuropsychological tests,” Lebowitz said. “We found that the relative risk was two to three and a half times more likely for them to perform at a level suggesting MCI.”

Although it was clear to the research group that individuals with reading disorders perform poorly on neuropsychological tests, the group does not know the full extent of its findings.

“We know that there are risk factors for developing cognitive diseases, such as having low IQ or MCI,” Lebowitz said. “At this point we don’t know if reading disorders are one of these risk factors, we have to follow it longer.”

Lebowitz’s next step is to conduct a longitudinal study for five to 10 years to determine if individuals with a reading disorder develop Alzheimer’s disease at a different rate than individuals with MCI. For now, though, Lebowitz believes the medical community should take caution when interpreting neuropsychological test results and take into account the entire lifelong history of the individual.