Understanding how Alzheimer’s disease develops may one day help researchers come up with ways to delay its progression.
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A new study in the New England Journal of Medicine finds the Alzheimer’s disease process may begin more than 20 years before the onset of dementia is diagnosed.
Stephen Rao, PhD, a Cleveland Clinic researcher who works with Alzheimer’s patients says the study found a protein linked to Alzheimer’s disease called amyloid-beta, which may begin changing in the brain 20 years before dementia sets in.
“At 10 to 15 years, we begin to see atrophy in the brain,” Dr. Rao says. “Five years before diagnosis, we begin to see changes in memory, but not sufficient enough to result in the diagnosis. And then the person is eventually diagnosed,” he adds.
Washington University researchers studied 128 people with a family history of Alzheimer’s and found concentrations of amyloid-beta in the cerebrospinal fluid declining 25 years before symptoms of dementia appeared.
For people who inherit Alzheimer’s, this means that the series of changes in the brain that result in the disease begin more than 20 years prior to the person being diagnosed.
Researchers say the findings may not apply to sporadic Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most commonly diagnosed form of Alzheimer’s, so more studies are needed.
But Dr. Rao says the findings may lead to better treatments.
“If we can develop drugs that can prevent the disease or slow it down 20 years before, we have a good chance that either we’ll push back the age of diagnosis or we may eliminate [a person’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis] altogether,” he says.
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