July 26th, 2011 at 8:27 am
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Early Alzheimer’s diagnosis: would you want to know?

by Carol Bursack

News from the Alzheimer’s Association’s International Conference which recently took place in Paris has been exciting in many ways. One of the most interesting–and to many people, controversial–topics has been the development of tests that can diagnose Alzheimer’s disease up to 20 years prior to symptoms.

Why the controversy? Think about it. If you are 35 years old and are told you will develop Alzheimer’s in 20 years, what is that going to do to your quality of life? If there were a way to stop the disease in its tracks, we’d all be delighted to find out early if we are at risk. But as things stand, there is little to be done other than to control our weight, watch our cholesterol, exercise, practice healthy living habits and keep an active mind–all things that we should be doing for our health anyway.

According to msnbc.com, the average person doesn’t want to know if he/she is at risk. Some do, of course. In general, the people who want to know are those genetically predisposed. These people have usually seen several members of their family struggle with the disease. For the most part, they’d like to have the test, hoping that they could rest easy if they are not showing any signs of AD.

What tests are on the horizon?

Two major developments have recently been in the news worldwide:

Eye exam

Alzheimer’s is known to trigger not only changes in the brain, but in the eyes as well. According to the Associated Press, scientists in Australia recently conducted a study to examine these changes. Researchers concentrated on studying blood vessels found in the retina–which is found in the back of the eyes. In the small comparative study, the researchers found the width of blood vessels in the retina of individuals with Alzheimer’s was different than those without Alzheimer’s. And, even more interestingly, the difference matched the difference in the amount of plaque observed in brain scans.

Says Dr. Lee Goldstein of Boston University:

My hat’s off to them for looking outside the brain for other areas where we might see other evidence of this disease.

Blood Test

Researchers at Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO–along with other universities–conducted a study of over 1,100 individuals. As reported by ABC News, the aim of this study was to develop a blood test that could diagnose Alzheimer’s disease.

Brain scans that look for beta amyloid–a protein that binds together in sticky clumps–is the standard for Alzheimer’s diagnoses. However, because these scans are quite expensive, they are not seen as a practical method to diagnose Alzheimer’s. Enter the development of the blood test, a simple way for doctors to screen their patients for the disease.

CSIRO validated its data by testing against other diagnostically accepted results, and the test performed quite well, according to Maria Carrillo, senior director of medical and scientific relations for the Alzheimer’s Association.

Would you want to know?

Would you want to know if you will develop Alzheimer’s disease in five, 10 or 20 years? In my opinion, this decision should be left to the individual, especially since at this time, there is little that can be done to stem the progression of the disease. Once there is medication available to reliably stop AD in its tracks, I feel most people would fall in line to get tested.

Preparing yourself and your family for the future

One reason for a very early diagnosis, is that you then have time to plan for both your future care and for your family’s welfare. You can decide what type of care you’d like under different scenarios. You can appoint a Power Of Attorney and have a health directive in place. You can even change jobs if you think that is a good decision.

Most of us should have the legal documents in place just because any of us could have a stroke, a heart attack, or an accident. However, if you knew dementia was in your future, you would want to prepare your family for the changes that will likely occur.

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