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Fallacies in the pathological confirmation of the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease
  1. John V Bowlera,d,e,
  2. David G Munoza,b,d,
  3. Harold Merskeyc,d,
  4. Vladimir Hachinskia,d
  1. aDepartment of Clinical Neurological Sciences, bDepartment of Pathology, cDepartment of Psychiatry, dJohn P Robarts Research Institute, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada, eMemory Clinic, Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Charing Cross and Westminster Medical School, University of London, London, UK
  1. Dr JV Bowler, Memory Clinic, Department of Clinical, Neuroscience, Charing Cross and Westminster Medical School, Fulham Palace Road, London W6 8RF, UK. Telephone 0044 181 846 7508; fax 0044 181 846 7715; email:j.bowler{at}


OBJECTIVE Necropsy confirmed clinical diagnostic accuracy for Alzheimer’s disease is claimed to exceed 90%. This figure contains two fallacies; it includes cases in which Alzheimer’s disease exists with other diseases affecting cognition and the studies that report these figures excluded cases without necropsy (verification bias). The effect of these errors is estimated.

METHODS Data were taken from the University of Western Ontario Dementia Study, a registry of dementia cases with clinical and psychometric follow up to necropsy based in a university memory disorders clinic with secondary and tertiary referrals. Data were available on 307 patients; 200 (65%) had clinically diagnosed Alzheimer’s disease, 12 (4%) vascular dementia, 47 (15%) mixed dementia, and 48 (16%) had other diagnoses. One hundred and ninety two of 307 cases (63%) died and 122 of 192 fatalities (64%) had necropsies. The pathological material was interpreted in two ways, allowing and disallowing coexistent disease in making a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. In cases without necropsy, progressive cognitive loss was used as a marker for degenerative dementia. The outcome measures of interest were the positive predictive value of a clinical diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease allowing and disallowing coexistent diseases and with and without correction for cases that were not necropsied.

RESULTS The clinical diagnoses differed significantly between the population who died and those who did not. In cases without necropsy, 22% had no dementia on follow up, concentrated in early cases and men, showing considerable scope for verification bias. The positive predictive value of a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease was 81% including coexistent diseases, falling to 44% when limited to pure cases. Combined, these factors reduce the positive predictive value to 38% for pure Alzheimer’s disease.

CONCLUSIONS Correction for dual pathology and verification bias halves the positive predictive value of the clinical diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Data derived from necropsy studies cannot be extrapolated to the whole population. This has important implications including uncertainty about diagnosis and prognosis and a dilution effect in therapeutic trials in Alzheimer’s disease.

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • necropsy
  • diagnostic accuracy
  • verification bias

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