From the American Geriatrics Society  

A 2010 report of the Alzheimer’s Association estimates that one in eight, or 13 percent, of people over age 65 have Alzheimer’s disease. The prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias will continue to increase with the rapid growth of our older population. Managing these complex conditions can be a challenge for busy practitioners. The American Geriatrics Society (AGS) is pleased to make this convenient guide on the Diagnosis and Treatment of Dementia available to healthcare providers and trainees who care for older adults.

This guide is based on two acclaimed AGS publications. Geriatrics At Your FingertipsTM is a convenient, pocket-sized guide to the evaluation and management of diseases and disorders that most commonly affect older people. The Geriatrics Review Syllabus: A Core Curriculum in Geriatric Medicine is a comprehensive text for those who wish to expand and update their knowledge in the field.

The AGS is a nationwide, non-profit association of healthcare professionals dedicated to improving the health, independence, and quality of life for all older people. The AGS has a diverse, multidisciplinary membership of healthcare professionals, researchers, educators, administrators, and students. For more information on the AGS, its publications, and membership benefits, please go to www.americangeriatrics.org or call 800-247-4779.

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Chronic acquired decline in memory and in at least one other cognitive function (e.g., language, visual-spatial, executive) sufficient to affect daily life.


  • AD: 60% - 70%
  • Other progressive disorders: 15% - 30% (e.g., vascular, Lewy body, frontotemporal)
  • Completely reversible dementia (e.g., drug toxicity, metabolic changes, thyroid disease, subdural hematoma, normal-pressure hydrocephalus): 2% - 5%

Definite Risks
Atrial fibrillation
Table Down syndrome
Family history

Possible Risks
Head trauma
Heavy smoking
Lower educational level
Other genes
Postmenopausal hormone therapy

Possible Protections
Currently there are no proven preventive measures to stop the onset of Alzheimer's disease. Antioxidants (e.g., vitamin E, beta carotene) may provide possible protection. Use caution with vitamin E in those with cardiovascular disease because > 400 IU may increase mortality.


Mild Cognitive Impairment (preclinical)
MMSE 26-30; CDR 0.5; FAST 3; MOCA< 26*
  • Report by patient or caregiver of memory loss
  • Objective signs of memory impairment
  • Mild construction, language, or executive dysfunction
  • No functional impairment
  • 6%-15% annual conversion rate to dementia syndrome
  • Some cases of mild cognitive impairment may not progress to AD
Early, Mild Impairment (yr 1-3 from onset of symptoms)
MMSE 21-25; CDR 1; FAST 4*
  • Disoriented to date
  • Naming difficulties (anomia)
  • Mild difficulty copying figures
  • Problems managing finances
  • Recent recall problems
  • Decreased insight
  • Irritability, mood change
  • Social withdrawal
Middle, Moderate Impairment (yr 2-8)
MMSE 11-20; CDR 2; FAST 5-6*
  • Disordered to date, place
  • Comprehension difficulties (aphasia)
  • Impaired language and calculating skills
  • Impaired new learning
  • Getting lost in familiar places
  • Problems with dressing, grooming
  • Not cooking, shopping, banking
  • Restless, anxious, depressed
  • Delusions, agitation, aggression
Severe Impairment (yr 6-12)
MMSE: 0-10; CDR 3; FAST 7*
  • Remote memory gone
  • Nearly unintelligible verbal output
  • Unable to copy or write
  • No longer grooming or dressing
  • Incontinent
  • Motor or verbal agitation
  • Distressing conditions common in advanced dementia include pressure ulcers, constipation, pain, weight loss, contractures, and shortness of breath
  • Among nursing home residents with advanced dementia, 71% die within 6 months of admission

* MMSE = Mini-Mental State Examination; CDR = Clinical Dementia Rating Scale;
FAST = Reisberg Functional Assessment Staging Scale; MoCA = Montreal Cognitive Assessment

Consider superimposed delirium or pain as precipitating factor.

Psychotic Symptoms (e.g., delusions, hallucinations)
  • Seen in about 20% of AD patients
  • Delusions may be paranoid (e.g., people stealing things, spouse unfaithful)
  • Hallucinations (~11% of patients) are more commonly visual
Depressive Symptoms
  • Seen in up to 40% of AD patients; may precede onset of AD
  • May cause acceleration or decline if untreated; suspect if patient stops eating or withdraws
  • Sadness
  • Loss of interest in usual activities
  • Anxiety and irritability
  • High prevalence and persistence throughout course of AD
  • Causes more impairment in ADL than expected for cognitive status
  • High overlap with depressive symptoms but lacks depressive mood, guilt, and hopelessness
Agitation or Aggression
  • Seen in up to 80% of patients with AD
  • A leading cause of nursing-home admission

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History: Always obtain from family or other caregiver: time symptoms first noted, family history of dementia, head injury, falls, alcohol and other substance exposure, history of depression, focal weakness, gait disturbance.
Comprehensive physical and neurologic examination: Check esp. for focal weakness, gait impairment, language impairment, extrapyramidal signs (rigidity, tremor, bradykinesia).
Assess functional status: Ask about bathing, dressing, toileting, transferring, as well as intermediate activities (eg, managing finances, medications, cooking, shopping).
Evaluate mental status for attention, immediate and delayed recall, remote memory, executive function, depression. Useful screening tests are the Mini-Cog, number of animals named in 1 minute (18 is average; less than 10 markedly abnormal), MMSE, Geriatric Depression ScalePHQ-9. If Mini-Cog is positive, use MMSE (www.minimental.com) or Montreal Cognitive Assessment (www.mocatest.org).

Note: The MMSE is not as accurate in individuals with less than an 8th-grade education, or those whose primary language is not English (higher rates of false positives). It is also not sensitive in highly educated individuals, although a score of 30 can still indicate cognitive impairment. The Mini-Cog or MOCA may be more appropriate to use in these instances.  Memory Impairment Screen (MIS), General Practitioner Assessment of Cognition (CPCOG) and Informant Questionnaire on Cognitive Decline in the Elderly (IQCODE) have been found to be the most suitable for cognitive assessment in primary care.

Clinical Features Distinguishing AD and Other Dementias

AD: Memory, language, visual-spatial disturbances, indifference, delusions, agitation
Frontotemporal dementia: Relative preservation of memory and visual-spatial skills, personality change, executive dysfunction, excessive eating and drinking
Lewy body dementia: Visual hallucinations, delusions, extrapyramidal symptoms, fluctuating mental status, sensitivity to antipsychotic medications
Vascular dementia: Abrupt onset, stepwise deterioration, executive dysfunction, gait changes.

Neuropsychological Testing

Reference standard for the presence of dementia or mild cognitive impairment:

  • Especially helpful in mild, early disease and atypical presentations
  • Quantifies and establishes the type of cognitive deficits
  • Establishes baseline for comparison

Laboratory Testing

  • Complete blood cell count, thyroid-stimulating hormone, B12, folate, serum calcium, liver and kidney function tests, electrolytes
  • Serologic test for syphilis (selectively)
  • Glucose and HIV for patients at risk
  • Genetic testing and “Alzheimer blood tests” are not currently recommended for clinical use

Neuroimaging (MRI or CT of the Brain)

  • The likelihood of detecting structural lesions is increased with:
    • Onset age <60 years
    • Focal (unexplained) neurologic signs or symptoms
    • Abrupt onset or rapid decline (weeks to months)
    • Predisposing conditions (eg, metastatic cancer or anticoagulants)
  • Neuroimaging may detect the 5% of patients with clinically significant structural lesions that would otherwise be missed.
  • FDG-PET scans approved by Medicare for atypical presentation of course of AD in which frontotemporal dementia diagnosis is suspected. See www.petscaninfo.com/portals/pat/medicare_guidelines_alzheimers
  • Florbetapin F18 (Amyrid) approved by FDA for detection of amyloid plaques. Positive scan does not establish diagnosis; Medicare will not cover.

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  • Dementia syndrome
  • Gradual onset and continuing decline
  • Not due to another physical, neurologic, or psychiatric condition or to medications
  • Deficits not seen exclusively during delirium

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Primary goals are to improve quality of life and maximize functional performance by enhancing cognition and addressing mood and behavior. Although completely reversible dementia (e.g., drug toxicity) is rare, identifying and treating secondary physical conditions may improve function.

General Treatment Principles

  • Identify and treat comorbid physical illnesses (e.g., hypertension, diabetes mellitus)
  • Promote brain health by physical and mental exercises, balanced diet, stress reduction
  • Avoid anticholinergic medications, e(.g., benztropine, diphenhydramine, hydroxyzine, oxybutynin, tricyclic antidepressants, clozapine, thioridazine)
  • Limit prn psychotropic medication use
  • Specify and quantify target behaviors
  • Set realistic goals
  • Assess and monitor cognitive and functional status and neuropsychological symptoms
  • Intervene to decrease hazards of wandering
  • Monitor physical environment for safety (e.g., stairs)
  • Advise patient and family concerning driving
  • Establish and maintain relationship with patient and family
  • Advise patient and family about sources of care and support, financial and legal issues, and advance directives, including establishing surrogate decision maker
  • Consider referral to hospice (Reisberg Functional Assessment Staging (FAST) Scale = 7)

Nonpharmacologic Approaches

Advise caregiver(s) to:

  • Use scheduled toileting and prompted toileting for incontinence
  • Offer graded assistance (as little help as possible to perform ADLs), role modeling, cueing, and positive reinforcement to increase independence
  • Avoid adversarial debates; try to redirect conversation instead
  • Maintain a calm demeanor
  • Use services of caregiver support groups

For problem behaviors:

  • Music during meals, bathing
  • Walking or light exercise
  • Simulate family presence with video or audio tapes
  • Pet therapy
  • Speak at patient’s comprehension level
  • Bright light, “white” noise (i.e., low-level, background noise)

Pharmacologic Treatment of Cognitive Dysfunction

  • Patients with mild or moderate Alzheimer’s disease (AD) should receive a cognitive enhancer (Table 1).
  • Because the effects of treatment cannot be fairly evaluated until the patient has been on a cognitive enhancer for some time, caregivers should commit to a trial treatment period of at least 3 months before the medication  is  started.
  • Controlled data for cholinergic drugs compared with placebo for 1 year show statistical benefit for cognition but with limited clinical benefit.
  • Only 10%–25% of patients taking cholinesterase inhibitors show modest global improvement, but more patients may have less rapid cognitive decline.
  • Initial studies have shown benefits of these medications for patients with dementia associated with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Lewy body dementia, and vascular dementia.
  • Cholinesterase inhibitors have not been convincingly demonstrated to slow progression of mild cognitive impairment to dementia, but early treatment may help maintain function at higher level for longer periods.
  • Cholinesterase inhibitors may attenuate noncognitive symptoms and delay nursing-home placement.
  • Memantine (Namenda) demonstrated modest efficacy compared with placebo in moderate to severe AD as monotherapy and when combined with donepezil (Aricept).
  • D/C cognitive enhancers when FAST = 7 if consistent with goals of care. Recent controlled trials do not demonstrate significant advantages to the combination of memantine and donepezil to donepezil alone in patients with severe dementia.
  • Vitamin E @1000 IU q12h found to delay functional decline in AD (caution in those with cardiovascular disease because > 400 IU may increase mortality).
  • Ginkgo biloba is not generally recommended.
  • Axona (medium-chair triglyceride) has insufficient evidence to support its value in preventing or treating AD, and long-term effects are uncertain.

Table 1. Cognitive Enhancers



Donepezil (Aricept) a

Start at 5 mg/d, increase to 10 mg/d after 1 mo

Galantamine a, c (Razadyne)

Extended release (Razadyne ER)

Start at 4 mg q12h, increase to 8 mg q12h after 4 wk; recommended dosage 8 or 12 mg q12h

Start at 1 capsule daily, preferably with food; titrate as above

Rivastigmine (Exelona

Start at 1.5 mg q12h and gradually titrate up to minimally effective dosage of 3 mg q12h; continue up to 6 mg q12h as tolerated; for patch, start at 4.6 mg/d, may be increased after >4 wk to 9.5 mg/d (recommended effective dosage): re-titrate if medication is stopped

Memantine (Namenda)
[NMDA antagonist] b

Start at 5 mg/d, increase by 5 mg at weekly intervals to max of 10 mg q12h; if CrCl <30mL/min max dose is 5 mg q12h

a Cholinesterase inhibitors. FDA labeling for AD is as follows: donepezil-mild, moderate, severe; galantamine-mild, moderate; rivastigmine-mild, moderate. Continue if patient improves or stabilizes; stopping medication can lead to rapid decline (not a concern if already severe). Adverse events increase with higher dosage. Possible adverse events include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dyspepsia, anorexia, weight loss, leg cramps, bradycardia, syncope, insomnia, and agitation.
b Approved by FDA for moderate to severe AD. Possible adverse events include dizziness, headache, somnolence. NMDA = N-methyl-d-aspartate.
c Increased mortality found in controlled studies of mild cognitive impairment.

Evaluation of Response to Any Cognitive Enhancer

  • Elicit caregiver observations of patient's cognitive function and behavior (alertness, initiative) and follow functional status (ADLs and instrumental ADLs).
  • Follow cognitive status (e.g., improved or stabilized) by caregiver's report or serial ratings of cognition (e.g., Mini-Cog, MMSE).

Treatment of Agitation

  • Consider nonpharmacologic approaches first.
  • Identify and examine context of behavior (is it harmful to patient or others?), environmental triggers (e.g., overstimulation, unfamiliar surroundings, frustrating interactions).
  • Are delusions or hallucinations interfering with function?
  • Exclude underlying physical discomfort (e.g., illnesses or medications).
  • For intermittent disruptive behaviors (once per week or less), identifying antecedents of the behavior and avoiding triggers is often most useful. Behavior modification using positive reinforcement of desirable behavior has been shown to be effective, and also helps caregiver focus on times when behavior is not a problem.
  • Physical restraint in any form should be avoided if at all possible. If restraining measures are necessary, careful supportive care should be provided to the patient. Over time, it is usually possible to reduce or eliminate the amount of restraint.
  • Select pharmacologic agent on the basis of symptoms (Table 2).
    • Cognitive enhancers may slow deterioration, and agitation may worsen if they are discontinued.
    • Low dosages of antipsychotic medications have a limited role but may be necessary at times. Note: this use is "off label"; use in AD patients has a BLACK BOX warning because the risk of death was higher with drug treatment than with placebo in clinical trials. Risk-benefit must be discussed with both patients and caregivers before starting treatment. In the CATIE-AD trial (NEJM 2006;355:1525-1538), modest treatment with second-generation antipsychotics showed no significant benefit (p=0.22). Olanzapine, risperidone, and quetiapine had marginally higher response rates (32%, 29%, and 26%, respectively) than placebo (21%). Response was mitigated by greater extrapyramidal symptoms, sedation, and confusion in the treated groups. Weight gain was reported, particularly in women treated with olanzapine and quetiapine. Olanzapine was also associated with decreased HDL cholesterol.

Table 2. Pharmacologic Treatment of Agitation


Medication and Usual Dosing

Agitation in context of psychosis

Aripiprazole 2.5-12.5 mg/da
Olanzapine 2.5-10 mg/da
Quetiapine 12.5-100 mg/da
Risperidone 0.25-3 mg/da

Agitation in context of depression

SSRI, eg, citalopram 10-30 mg/d

Anxiety, mild to moderate irritability

Buspirone 15-60 mg/db
Trazodone 50-100 mg/dc

Agitation or aggression unresponsive to first-line treatment

Carbamazepine 300-600 mg/dd
Divalproex sodium 500-1500 mg/de
Olanzapine (intramuscular) 2.5-5 mg IMa, f

Sexual aggression, impulse-control symptoms in men

Second-generation antipsychotic or divalproex (see dosages above)
If no response, conjugated equine estrogens
0.625-1.25 mg/d
medroxyprogesterone injectable 100mg/wk IM

a Greater mortality, cardiovascular, and cerebrovascular events than placebo; use with particular caution in patients with cerebrovascular disease, prolonged QTc interval or hypovolemia.
b Can be given q12h; allow 2-4 wk for adequate trial.
c Small divided daytime dosage and larger bedtime dosage; watch for sedation and orthostasis.
d Monitor serum levels; periodic CBCs, platelet counts secondary to agranulocytosis risk. Beware of drug-drug interactions.
e Can monitor serum levels; usually well tolerated; check complete blood count (CBC), platelets for agranulocytosis, thrombocytopenia risk.
f For acute use only; initial dose 2.5-5mg, second dose (2.5-5mg) can be given after 2 hr, maximum of 3 injections in 24 hr (maximum daily dose 20mg); should not be administered for more than 3 consecutive days.

FDA Advisory Information on Second-generation Antipsychotics

In 17 randomized, controlled trials in which 5106 older adults with dementia-related behavioral disorders were enrolled, the risk of death in the drug-treated patients was 1.6-1.7 compared with that of the placebo group. Treatments consisted of Zyprexa (olanzapine), Abilify (aripiprazole), Risperdal (risperidone), or Seroquel (quetiapine). These trials averaged about 10 weeks. The rate of death was about 4.5% in drug-treated patients and about 2.6% in the placebo group. Most of the deaths appeared to be either cardiovascular (e.g., heart failure, sudden death) or infectious (e.g., pneumonia) in nature.

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  • Maintaining the health and well-being of caregivers is essential for effective treatment of dementia patients
  • Over 50% of caregivers develop depression
  • Physical illness, isolation, anxiety, and burnout are common
  • Intensive education and support of caregivers may delay institutionalization of patients with dementia
  • Adult day services for patients and respite services for caregivers may help
  • Alzheimer's Association (www.alz.org / 800-272-3900) offers education and support services (e.g., Safe Return); chapters are located in major cities throughout US
  • Family Caregiver Alliance (www.caregiver.org / 800-445-8106) offers support, education, and information for caregivers

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Mini-CogTM Screen for Dementia

The Mini-CogTM screen combines an uncued 3-item recall test with a clock-drawing test (CDT) that serves as a recall distractor. The Mini-CogTM can be administered in about 3 min, requires no special equipment, and is less influenced by level of education or language differences.


  1. Make sure you have the patient’s attention. Then instruct the patient to listen carefully to, repeat back to you, and remember (now and later) 3 unrelated words. You may present the same words up to 3 times if necessary.
  2. Instruct the patient to draw the face of a clock, either on a blank sheet of paper, or on a sheet with the clock circle already drawn on the page. After the patient puts the numbers on the clock face, ask him or her to draw the hands of the clock to read a specific time (11:10 or 8:20 are most commonly used; however, other times that require use of both halves of the clock face may be effective). These instructions can be repeated, but no additional instructions should be given. If the patient cannot complete the CDT in 3 min or less, move on to the next step.
  3. Ask the patient to repeat the 3 previously presented words.


Give 1 point for each recalled word after the CDT distractor. Score 0–3 for recall.

Give 2 points for a normal CDT, and 0 points for an abnormal CDT. The CDT is considered normal if all numbers are depicted, once each, in the correct sequence and position around the circle, and the hands readably display the requested time. Do not count equal hand length as an error. Add the recall and CDT scores together to get the Mini-Cog score:

  • 0-2   positive screen for dementia
  • 3-5   negative screen for dementia

Source: Adapted from Borson S, Scanlan J, Brush M, Vitaliano P, Dokmak A. The Mini-Cog: A cognitive ‘‘vital signs’’ measure for dementia screening in multi-lingual elderly. Int J Geriatr Psychiatry 2000; 15(11):1021–1027, and Borson S, Scanlan JM, Watanabe J, Tu SP, Lessig M. Improving identification of cognitive impairment in primary care. Int J Geriatr Psychiatry 2006; 21(4):349–355. Reprinted with permission of S. Borson.

Mini-CogTM Copyright 2000, 2006, 2007. All rights reserved. Licensed for print distribution by S. Borson, MD, solely use as a clinical aid. Any other use is strictly prohibited. To obtain information on the Mini-CogTM contact Dr. Borson at soob@u.washington.edu.


Geriatric Depression Scale (GDS, Short Form)

Choose the best answer for how you felt over the past week.
  1. Are you basically satisfied with your life? yes/no
  2. Have you dropped many of your activities and interests? yes/no
  3. Do you feel that your life is empty? yes/no
  4. Do you often get bored? yes/no
  5. Are you in good spirits most of the time? yes/no
  6. Are you afraid that something bad is going to happen to you? yes/no
  7. Do you feel happy most of the time? yes/no
  8. Do you often feel helpless? yes/no
  9. Do you prefer to stay at home, rather than going out and doing new things? yes/no
  10. Do you feel you have more problems with memory than most? yes/no
  11. Do you think it is wonderful to be alive now? yes/no
  12. Do you feel pretty worthless the way you are now? yes/no
  13. Do you feel full of energy? yes/no
  14. Do you feel that your situation is hopeless? yes/no
  15. Do you think that most people are better off than you are? yes/no

Score 1 point for each bolded answer.
Cut-off: normal 0–5; above 5 suggests depression.

Source: Courtesy of Jerome A. Yesavage, MD. For 30 translations of the GDS, see www.stanford.edu/~yesavage/GDS.html

Score 1 point for each bolded answer.

Cut-off: normal 0–5; above 5 suggests depression.

Source: Courtesy of Jerome A. Yesavage, MD. For 30 translations of the GDS, see www.stanford.edu/~yesavage/GDS.html

For additional information on administration and scoring, refer to the following references:

Sheikh JI, Yesavage JA. Geriatric Depression Scale: recent evidence and development of a shorter version. Clin Gerontol 1986;5:165–172.

Feher EP, Larrabee GJ, Crook TH 3rd. Factors attenuating the validity of the Geriatric Depression Scale in a dementia population. J Am Geriatr Soc 1992;40:906–909.

Yesavage JA, Brink TL, Rose TL et al. Development and validation of a geriatric depression rating scale: a preliminary report. J Psychiatr Res 1983;17:27.

Reisberg Functional Assessment Staging (FAST) Scale

This 16-item scale is designed to parallel the progressive activity limitations associated with AD. Stage 7 identifies the threshold of activity limitation that would support a prognosis of 6 mo or less remaining life expectancy.

FAST Stage Activity Limitation Associated with AD
Stage 1 No difficulty, either subjectively or objectively
Stage 2 Complains of forgetting location of objects; subjective work difficulties
Stage 3 Decreased job functioning evident to coworkers; difficulty in traveling to new locations
Stage 4 Decreased ability to perform complex tasks (e.g., planning dinner for guests, handling finances)
Stage 5 Requires assistance in choosing proper clothing
Stage 6 Decreased ability to dress, bathe, and toilet independently
Substage 6a Difficulty putting clothing on properly
Substage 6b Unable to bathe properly, may develop fear of bathing
Substage 6c Inability to handle mechanics of
toileting (ie, forgets to flush, does not wipe properly)
Substage 6d Urinary incontinence
Stage 7 Loss of speech, locomotion, and consciousness
Substage 7a Ability to speak limited (1-5 words a day)
Substage 7b All intelligible vocabulary lost
Substage 7c Nonambulatory
Substage 7d Unable to smile
Substage 7e Unable to hold head up

Source: Reisberg, B. Functional assessment staging (FAST), Psychopharmacol Bull 1988;24(4):653-659. Copyright MedWorks Media Global, LLC. Reprinted with permission.

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Barton C, Yaffe K. Dementia. In: Pacala JT, Sullivan GM, eds. Geriatrics Review Syllabus: A Core Curriculum in Geriatric Medicine. 7th ed. New York: American Geriatrics Society; 2010:274-285.

Blennow K, deLeon MJ, Zetterberg H. Alzheimer's disease. Lancet 2006;368(9533):387-403.

Lantz MS, Khanmohamadi A, Wong PY. Behavioral problems in dementia. In: Pacala JT, Sullivan GM, eds. Geriatrics Review Syllabus: A Core Curriculum in Geriatric Medicine. 7th ed. New York: American Geriatrics Society; 2010:285-294.

Reuben DB, Herr KA, Pacala JT, Pollock BG, Potter JF, Semla TP. Dementia. In: Geriatrics At Your Fingertips: 2011. 13th ed (in production). New York: The American Geriatrics Society.

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