Alzheimer’s Disease is a devastating illness which affects families all over the country; from the adult child who fears that her father’s recent forgetfulness might be a harbinger of something more sinister, to the elderly gentleman who wonders how he will possible pay for the care his beloved wife requires.

Over the years, the treatment received by Alzheimer’s patients has depended in part on how the disease is diagnosed; and according to this article from a New York Times blog, “new criteria [for diagnosis], unveiled on Tuesday by the National Institute on Aging and the Alzheimer’s Association, will have consequences for family caregivers. Informed by research showing that changes in the brain may be under way a decade before any symptoms appear, the guidelines are likely to lead to increasingly early diagnoses.”

One of the most significant results of these new criteria is the establishment of three distinct stages of Alzheimer’s disease:

Pre-Clinical Dementia, wherein “There’s some biological or structural brain evidence that the Alzheimer’s process is under way, but the person’s not disabled and the family doesn’t notice any problem.”

Mild Cognitive Impairment, in which “someone has problems that don’t cause disability, but they’re evident enough that the patient and a family member or another observer agree, ‘Yes, it’s noticeable.’”

And finally, actual Dementia, which includes the signs and symptoms we all already associate with Alzheimer’s disease.

One of the most practical implications of these new criteria will be the early diagnosis—and thus the earlier treatment—of Alzheimer’s. The article mentions that these treatments are not yet curative, but there are medications that can help with the symptoms, and there is some evidence that “if you optimize the treatments for other diseases that make Alzheimer’s worse, like diabetes and heart disease, that increases the likelihood that Alzheimer’s will not accelerate.”

Perhaps of the most significance to elder law attorneys is the fact that early diagnosis can allow families to make the legal arrangements they need before the disease progresses to the point where it is too late. If the disease can be diagnosed in the Pre-Clinical stage, or even the stage of Mild Cognitive Impairment, the person receiving the diagnosis may have the time to consult with an attorney and put their affairs in order, helping to ensure that they—and their family—are provided for in the years ahead.