Alzheimer’s Disease: Can The Deadly Condition Be Detected Decades Early?

By Amir Khan on November 7, 2012 1:10 PM EST

Alzheimer's disease is a debilitating disease, but now researchers may have the ability to detect Alzheimer's more than two decades before symptoms ever begin to show, according to a new study, published in the journal Lancet Neurology.

Alzheimer's disease begins long before symptoms begin to manifest, and previous studies have shown that people with Alzheimer's begin to lose brain cells up to 15 years before symptoms start to show. But a new study looked at people with familial Alzheimer's, which causes people to start developing the disease in their 40s instead of when they are around 75, and found that the brains of these people already showed changes when they were in their early 20s.

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The findings could shed light on Alzheimer's progression decades before the disease starts.

"These findings suggest that brain changes begin many years before the clinical onset of Alzheimer's disease," Dr. Eric Reiman, one of the study's authors, told BBC News. "They raise new questions about the earliest brain changes involved in the predisposition to Alzheimer's and the extent to which they could be targeted by future prevention therapies."

Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia in the United States, affecting more than 5 million people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of people who suffer from the disease is expected to double every 20 years as population increases and people live longer

Symptoms of Alzheimer's include memory loss, confusion, difficulty completing familiar tasks, decreased judgment and problems speaking or writing.

Healthcare costs related to Alzheimer's disease totaled almost $8 billion in 2010, according to the Alzheimer's Association, a nonprofit organization that advocates for Alzheimer's patients in the federal and state governments.

There is as yet no cure or successful treatment for Alzheimer's disease. The Obama administration set a goal of 2025 to find an effective treatment and pledged to spend an additional $50 million on dementia research on top of the $450 million the government spends annually until a treatment is found.

"Although early-onset inherited Alzheimer's is rare and may not entirely represent the more common late-onset form, the findings highlight changes can take place in the brain decades before symptoms show," Dr. Simon Ridley, the head of research at Alzheimer's Research UK, told BBC News. "Mapping what changes happen early in the brain will help scientists to improve detection of the disease and allow potential new treatments to be tested at the right time."

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