Typically, when elder clients come to us for assistance in long term health planning, preparing an estate plan or updating their powers of attorney, it’s often because they have received upsetting medical news or because someone else they’re close is suffering. Even those who have established their estate plan well before retirement will often review those efforts to ensure they’re current – and it’s not uncommon that the diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s for someone they’re close to that prods them forward. It’s a frightening possibility, but now, medical experts might have taken a bold step toward a future that can better predict and perhaps even prevent these difficult diagnoses. Could it be that a medical breakthrough is in the near future for detecting Alzheimer’s – and ultimately, preventing it? Maybe.
The number of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are growing rapidly, especially with an increasing percentage of the U.S. population ages. It’s estimated, in fact, that by 2025 the number of people age 65 and older with Alzheimer’s disease will reach approximately 7 million — a 40 percent increase from the estimated 5.1 million currently affected.
There is hope, though. A new blood test for early Alzheimer’s disease may be on the horizon, according to a new report.
Georgetown University is where researchers developed a test that looks for 10 substances in the blood known as cell membrane lipids. These substances could be connected to the breakdown of certain cells in the brain. The study found that those with lower levels of these substances were more likely to develop mental decline within three years. That applies even for those who have no signs of Alzheimer’s at all. Wondering just how accuracy the testing’s been? These tests have accurately predicted Alzheimer’s or other dementia illnesses in 90 percent of the cases.
“The principle difference is we actually looked at individuals without symptoms, tracking them to see if they developed the disease,” said Dr. Howard Federoff, vice president of health sciences at Georgetown University and lead author of the study published today in the journal Nature Medicine. “No other study has done this.”
The trials included 525 men and women, all of whom were over the age of 70. For five years, the trials moved forward. Some of these subjects already had Alzheimer’s or mild cognitive impairment, while some did not. Over the course of the five years, researchers took note of which subjects developed cognitive problems, then compared those subjects’ blood tests to the subjects who did not experience these changes. The comparison appeared to reveal the importance of the 10 cell membrane lipids in the development of mental decline.
It’s an impressive start; however, it’s nowhere near the stage of a more widespread testing effort. The research is in its infancy, but what’s been uncovered is by far the most promising news in the Alzheimer’s battle.
To date, there is no single test that can show whether a person has Alzheimer’s. So the finding of this study, which suggests a panel of biomarkers in a person’s blood could signal early degenerative changes in neurons within the brain prior to the onset of dementia, is intriguing. Scientists may not yet have all of the answers as to what causes Alzheimer’s disease, but with ongoing clinical trials, they are discovering new methods for diagnoses — and possibly even new ways to intervene.