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Published on: June 8, 2014
by Mark Huffman for Consumer Affairs:
With enough warning patients may be able to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
Estimates vary but the National Institute on Aging believes as many as 5.1 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease. This irreversible, progressive brain disease slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and eventually even the ability to carry out the simplest tasks.
As the Baby Boom generation enters old age there is concern that the number of people with this cognitive disease could surge, severely taxing the health care system.
While recent research has been promising, a cure is not on the horizon. However, an early warning system may be.
Neurologist Dr. David Geldmacher leads the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) memory disorders program. He sees Alzheimer’s patients on a daily basis. When he talks with the patients’ caregivers, he says he invariably gets the question, “can this happen to me?”
Does it run in the family?
“It is very common for family members of a patient receiving a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or other form of dementia to wonder about their own risk,” said Geldmacher.
Because of the persistent question Geldmacher began looking into ways to possibly predict whether someone will be affected by Alzheimer’s disease or some other cognitive impairment. He’s begun to prepare a personalized dementia risk assessment for people concerned about their risk for developing memory problems as they age.
As part of the assessment he compiles a family history and provides an in-depth memory history for the patient, cognitive testing and a baseline MRI scan. The results all go into risk predictor models.
From that, Geldmacher believes it will be possible to quantify the risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease, as well as identify risk factors that, once reduced, can lessen the chances of developing the disease.
He says existing research has already established that negating one or more risk factors can reduce a patient’s overall risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease.
Reducing the risk
“Our goal is to understand what risk factors are present in each individual and create a plan that best helps them reduce their risk and make appropriate plans for the future,” Geldmacher said.
Ideally, subjects would undergo the assessment when they are in their 50s and 60s and before they display any symptoms. The results should provide a risk prediction covering the next 20 years.
Not only that, Geldmacher believes that knowing the risks will allow – and motivate – people to take steps that can minimize the risk of serious memory loss.
The UAB clinic is currently setting up the assessment program. Participants will get two clinical visits with Geldmacher and his staff. The first will be to compile histories and conduct testing.
The second will be to go over a customized treatment plan, with instructions on how to access resources to achieve lifestyle changes and where to find supportive educational materials.
The two-visit assessment and treatment will cost about $1,000, which includes the MRI scan.
“It’s really for those who are worried about their cognitive health but do not currently have major memory issues,” Geldmacher said.
UAB is not the only institution working on a treatment to predict Alzheimer’s disease. Earlier this year researchers at Georgetown University Medical School said a simple blood test can predict with 90% accuracy whether someone will develop Alzheimer’s.
If an analysis of the blood shows low levels of 10 specific blood fats, it’s highly likely the patient will display dementia symptoms in the future.
“We do not know why all 10 of those lipids are lower in individuals who are predisposed to go on to cognitive impairment,” said study author Dr. Howard Federoff.
But again, researchers believe having an early warning of impending Alzheimer’s can help a patient make the lifestyle changes that can significantly delay its onset.
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