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Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2008 07:00 pm

Untangling the Alzheimer’s mystery

Old age doesn’t cause Alzheimer’s disease

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First, let’s clear up a common misconception: Old age doesn’t cause Alzheimer’s disease. Rather, the risk of Alzheimer’s, a progressive and fatal disease that kills cells in the brain, increases with age, particularly in people older than 60 years. Medical experts also estimate that approximately a half-million 30-, 40-, and 50-year olds have Alzheimer’s disease, known as early onset, or some form of dementia. Some 5 million people in the U.S. are living with Alzheimer’s disease. In Illinois, approximately 200,000 people have it. Diagnosing the disease can be extremely difficult. Today, physicians use a process of exclusion, including such markers as the presence of stroke, alcoholism or tumors, to diagnose Alzheimer’s, and many times that diagnosis cannot be confirmed until after a person dies. Diagnosis usually involves a battery of examinations that may include a blood test and CT, MRI, and PET scans. In addition to memory tests, such as the Mini-Mental State Examination and Mini-Cog, and the patient’s personal and family medical history, these tests can provide doctors the necessary information to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease. But unraveling the mystery may have just gotten easier. In October, medical researchers from Stanford University announced that they have developed a blood test to predict whether Alzheimer’s will develop in an individual within two to six years. Researchers, using blood samples from 259 patients from the United States and abroad, found that a specific set of proteins communicate differently in people in whom Alzheimer’s ultimately develops. The test, which distinguishes the blood of people with Alzheimer’s from the blood of those without it, is 90 percent accurate, researchers say. When it came to predicting whether patients with mild memory loss would have Alzheimer’s disease two to six years later, the test was about 80 percent accurate.
Markus Britschgi, one of the Stanford researchers, says people sometimes approach members of his team asking to them test vials of vials of relatives’ blood. But don’t wait until the test is made more widely available, says Claire Altschuler, communications director for the Greater Illinois Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association:
“If people are having serious memory changes that are affecting their everyday lives, they should go to a neurologist.”  

Staff writer R.L. Nave contributed to this story.
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