Finding Alzheimer’s Disease Before Symptoms Appear
Typically, we don’t know we’re sick until we start to have symptoms. We sneeze or cough or feel a sore throat coming on. By the time we have symptoms like these, we’re already sick. It’s too late to prevent the cold or the flu. We simply have to ride it out.
But what if we could prevent illness before any symptoms appeared? For a cold or the flu, this would be convenient. For something like Alzheimer’s disease, this would be life-changing.
Why is early detection of Alzheimer’s important?
Most often, someone finds out she has Alzheimer’s when her symptoms become apparent, either to her or her loved one. She is noticeably losing cognitive function. She is forgetting simple things. She is feeling disoriented or getting lost. By this point, Alzheimer’s disease has already set in and early treatments that can help slow the disease may not be as helpful.
However, if Alzheimer’s is detected before any symptoms appear, the course of treatment is much more effective. You can go on medications early to slow the process of cognitive decline, giving you more years of good memory. You and your loved ones can be prepared for the future, making key decisions regarding caregiving and memory care facility options. And you can be a part of those decisions. You can also participate in clinical trials.
Alzheimer’s research is robust and aggressive. You could be a part of a breakthrough treatment or therapy.
But all of this depends on early detection.
Can Alzheimer’s be detected before symptoms appear?
The short answer is yes.
With new developments in Alzheimer’s research, doctors are able to perform a number of tests that detect Alzheimer’s disease before any symptoms appear.
1. Genetic Testing
So far in Alzheimer’s research, three genes with rare variations have been identified that cause Alzheimer’s. Several genes have been identified that contribute to the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, such as APOE-e4, which has the strongest risk correlation.
To find out if you carry a gene variation that causes Alzheimer’s or increases your risk of developing it, you can do genetic testing at home with a kit like the 23andMe genetic health risk test. These types of home kits use a saliva sample that you take yourself and send in the mail. You then get your results online.
If you are considering genetic testing for Alzheimer’s disease, meeting with a genetic counselor is a good first step. A genetic counselor can direct you to the right type of testing and can determine if you’re a good candidate for genetic testing. To learn more about genetic counselors and to locate one near you, visit the National Society of Genetic Counselors at NSGC.org.
Biological markers, or “biomarkers,” are used to detect a number of diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease.
Biomarkers are measurable indications found through a number of tests that indicate someone has early signs of a disease.
For Alzheimer’s disease, testing the cerebrospinal fluid, the liquid around your brain and spinal cord, for the ratio levels of two proteins, beta-amyloid and phosphorylated tau, can indicate whether or not someone has Alzheimer’s disease more than five years before any symptoms appear. If you have more tau and less beta-amyloid and if that ratio continues to increase over time, you are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) and PET (positron emission technology) scans capture images of the brain that can show early indications of Alzheimer’s disease.
Structural imaging using an MRI can show if there have been any signs of neurodegeneration, such as shrinking in the hippocampus, a part of the brain crucial to retaining memory.
An MRI can also show if something else is causing memory loss or cognitive disfunction such as a tumor, stroke or signs of head trauma or fluid in the brain.
Functional imaging performed by a PET scan or a functional MRI can reveal if there is reduced brain cell activity in certain areas of the brain that would indicate Alzheimer’s disease.
Molecular imaging tests, which can be performed by a PET scan, can detect the beta-amyloid and tau proteins in the brain, determining if someone has Alzheimer’s before the structure of the brain indicates the presence of the disease.
4. Blood Tests
In addition to biomarkers, genetic testing and neuroimaging, blood tests are also an active area of research for early detection of Alzheimer’s disease.
In 2020, a study was released that found a blood test called p-tau17 was successful at detecting the tau protein in blood and determining if someone had Alzheimer’s.
As advancements in Alzheimer’s research continue, we can expect to see even more success with early detection of Alzheimer’s. While we are still awaiting a cure, we can work toward detecting the disease as early as possible, improving the quality and duration of life for the millions of Americans who have Alzheimer’s disease and the loved ones affected by it.