This One Thing Can Catch Alzheimer's 20 Years Before Your Symptoms Start

A simple blood test could be the key to advancing Alzheimer's research and patient care.

Diagnosing Alzheimer's is notoriously complicated. Until recently, reaching a diagnosis has meant cobbling together medical history, mental status tests, neurological exams, and brain imaging—and even then, it can't be fully confirmed until a post-mortem exam reveals amyloid plaques and tau tangles in the brain. But this week, a large international study published in the medical journal JAMA revealed that a new blood test known as "p-tau217" has shown "remarkable promise" in detecting Alzheimer's disease. Perhaps even more significantly, it can identify the disease up to 20 years before a patient first shows any symptoms.

Given that up to 81 percent of Alzheimer's cases go unrecognized in primary care settings, this advancement could have major implications for Alzheimer's patients. According to Eric Reiman, MD, Executive Director of Banner Alzheimer's Institute in Phoenix and a senior author on the study, the blood test is inexpensive and widely available—meaning it could become a common screening tool for high and low risk individuals alike.

Though there is currently no cure for Alzheimer's, certain clinical and non-clinical interventions can drastically change patient outcomes for the better. The sooner the diagnosis, the better the chances of successfully managing the disease.

Non-pharmaceutical interventions such as lifestyle changes, cognitive training, and behavioral therapy can significantly offset a person's risk of developing severe symptoms. One study revealed that these changes contributed to a 25 percent improvement in overall cognition (as measured through a series of neuropsychological tests), an 83 percent improvement in executive function, and a 150 percent improvement in processing speed. Clinical treatments are also available, including two medications used to alleviate symptoms of memory loss and confusion.

If you suspect symptoms of cognitive decline, or have a family history of Alzheimer's, talk to your doctor about screening for the disease. Though the p-tau217 blood test will require further research before becoming widely available in clinical settings, you can make lifestyle changes today that could greatly impact your tomorrow. And for more on Alzheimer's prevention, Doing This One Thing Could Drop Your Alzheimer's Risk by 30 Percent.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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