Alzheimer's Disease: Latest Research Into Early Diagnosis May Also Lead To Better Treatment

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Human Brain Colorized

Scientists now know that the damage done to the brain by Alzheimer's Disease begins long before the onset of symptoms.  And promising research is renewing hope that by diagnosing this devastating disease early, researchers will finally have an opportunity to study the disease in it's earliest stages and find an effective treatment.

Back when I was in nursing school (~20 years ago), of all my geriatric patients, the Alzheimer's patients were my favorite.  One in particular was a sweet little lady who was always smiling and giggling.  Even though she never knew who we were or where she was, her sweet personality still shined through.  I remember (naively) thinking that it must be so much better to have a disease were you are blissfully happy, than something that caused (physical) pain and suffering.

But once I had kids, I realized that Alzheimer's was so much more than a disease; it was really a tragedy too (both for the patient and for their family).

Right now there isn't a definitive way to diagnose Alzheimer's, although science is getting closer.   Here's some of the most promising news on the research.

This is from a recent article in TIME that details the latest research on Understanding Alzheimer's:

Experts are now convinced that it's crucial to treat Alzheimer's patients as early as possible, perhaps even before they show signs of memory loss or cognitive decline, rather than attempt to improve a brain already scourged by the disease.

From the New York Times -- Hunting Alzheimer's Early Signs:

Many scientists now think the problem may be that the drugs were given too late, when, as Dr. John C. Morris, an Alzheimer’s expert at Washington University in St. Louis, puts it, “there’s a heck of a lot of brain cell damage and we’re trying to treat a very damaged brain.”

If drugs could be given sooner, tailored to specific biological changes, or biomarkers, in the brain, treatment, or even prevention, might be more successful.

This is from a recent study published in Science Daily:

A new study at the University of California, San Diego, shows that amyloid beta disrupts one of the brain's anti-oxidant proteins and demonstrates a way to protect that protein, and perhaps others, from amyloid's harmful effects.

Here is more from the TIME article -- Understanding Alzheimer's:

Already the program has isolated a few dozen intriguing protein markers in blood and spinal fluid that may herald Alzheimer's disease and could help researchers identify high-risk individuals before symptoms set in. Also, newer, better brain scans are helping detect the amyloid patterns that previously could be verified only by autopsy.

With these new tools, doctors and researchers now have better guidelines for recognizing the disease much earlier.  It's not a definitive diagnosis, but researchers are certainly getting closer.

Seeing that benefit in the mental function of those at risk for Alzheimer's disease will be the ultimate test for this new strategy. But even if therapies are years or decades away, identifying patients earlier in the disease cycle will remain valuable. By knowing they are at risk for Alzheimer's, patients can plan better for the future and make changes to their lifestyle, such as exercising and staying mentally and socially engaged - behaviors known to delay the onset of symptoms.

Here is a video that goes into detail about the latest research and why early diagnosis is so important:

How do you feel about Alzheimer's Disease?  Are you at a greater risk because a family member has had it?  Our very own Rita Arens wrote a great post about why she would want her parents to be tested for Alzheimer's.  Would you want to know if Alzheimer's was in your future?  Let us know what your experience has been in comments.

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Contributing Editor Catherine Morgan
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