An estimated half-million Americans each year are affected by Alzheimer’s, a degenerative brain disease that researchers believe is surpassed only by heart disease and cancer as the leading cause of death in the United States, according to recent studies. 5.1 million Americans are estimated to have Alzheimer’s disease, according to the National Institute on Aging, and in 2010, the average cost to care for an elderly person with dementia was projected at $41,000 to $56,000 annually. Furthermore, as we all sadly know, there is no known cure.
In the face of such dire statistics, it comes as no surprise that laboratories around the world are diligently researching in order to discover effective solutions for countering this devastating illness. Early detection is one of the major fronts of this ongoing battle, and researchers at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth believe that they are closing in on the possibility of producing a significant diagnostic tool.
Scientists there are working on developing simple blood tests that are designed to help doctors more quickly detect Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and mild cognitive impairment, such as Parkinson’s disease. Since advanced detection will help motivate patients to begin taking better care of themselves earlier, such discoveries will boost efforts to develop medications for delaying or even reversing the effects of Alzheimer’s.
“In the Alzheimer’s world, we don’t detect the disease until it’s pretty advanced. If someone is clinically diagnosable with Alzheimer’s, it has been going on for years,” said Sid O’Bryant, interim director of the Institute for Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease Research at the Health Science Center. “We need to be able to detect it earlier, so we can create new ways to prevent the disease itself and do early treatment, so we can be most effective in treating our patients.”
In a study recently published in Nature Medicine, these same researchers made international headlines after unveiling a first-of-its-kind blood test, which they say can predict with 90 percent accuracy whether a healthy person will develop Alzheimer’s within two to three years. The test is based on whether the person has lowered levels of a particular set of fatty lipids.
Also an associate professor at the Health Science Center, O’Bryant leads a team of researchers who’ve spent a decade developing and refining this serum protein-based blood test. He said the goal is for the test to become standard, like cholesterol screening, for people over 65 who go in for their annual physical.
This finding could prove a watershed moment in the struggle against Alzheimer’s, because if persons knew more about their risk earlier on, it might encourage them to eat better, exercise more, and address other health issues, such as diabetes, which can also be effective strategies for battling the widespread disease.
The Texas-based researchers are awaiting word on a $6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the test further. If approved, the study would involve 3,000 older patients in the Fort Worth area, and could result in a breakthrough blood test for detecting Alzheimer’s disease early.