Research from the University of Washington in St. Louis is shedding new light on detecting risks of Alzheimer’s earlier. The ten-year study used 169 participants who presented no cognitive decline between the ages 45 and 75.

Each volunteer underwent a complete medical workup every three years – the minimum set at two. All had complete clinical evaluations, imaging and cerebrospinal biomarker analysis. There is thorough, and then there is thorough. It makes my participation in a clinical trial look like a flu shot.

Biomarkers evaluated by researchers included the presence of amyloid plaques in the brain (imaged with PET scans), the amyloid beta 42 (a protein building-block of Alzheimer’s plaques), Tau (a component of brain cells that increases in a patient’s cerebrospinal fluid as Alzheimer’s develops) and YKL-40 (a recently identified protein that is indicative of inflammation in the brain).

Researchers broke the participants into three age groups: 45-54, 55-64 and 65-74. Results of the study showed carriers of the APOE gene had the most significant changes. Scientists have identified people with two copies of a particular variant of the gene as having 10-times the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

Other results from the study showed a drop in the amyloid beta 42 protein in the 45-54 group corresponded to the appearance of plaque in scans years later.

Can the research predict whether you will develop Alzheimer’s later in life as early as 45? No, but Anne Fagan, professor of Neurology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, says it is the goal.

“It’s too early to use these biomarkers to definitively predict whether individual patients will develop Alzheimer’s disease, but we’re working toward that goal.”

“One day, we hope to use such measures to identify and treat people years before memory loss and other cognitive problems become apparent.”

The research is the first data set to show the biomarkers change over time in middle-aged people. Previous studies have already linked the biomarkers as being affected by the disease.

What does it mean for you? Science is focusing on the long-term nature of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Additional research will focus on analyzing the biomarkers in younger people in the hopes of developing treatments to head off the disease before it becomes symptomatic.

It’s a laudable goal. An estimated 5.3 million Americans have the disease. The number is set to explode higher by 40 percent to 7.1 million in 2025. If research remains static, the 5.3 million estimate could nearly triple to 13.8 million by 2050.

How can you and I help? Groups like the Alzheimer’s Association offer ways to educate and help fund additional research. You can join an Alzheimer’s Walk to raise awareness in your community.

Alzheimer's walk

Professor Anne Fagan was a senior author of the study published in the July issue of JAMA Neurology.

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