Alzheimer’s disease is the most common dementia in older people in America. It is believed that damage to the brain that brings on the disease begins 10 to 20 years before the onset of dementia. With that knowledge in mind, it is now thought that addressing the disease at its earliest stages is key to staving off dementia.
"Ultimately it will be easier to protect a healthy brain rather than try to repair the brain once damage sets in," says Gary Small, MD, director of the UCLA Center on Aging. “Our strategy is to find biomarkers based on brain imaging, protein analysis and other biological measures to help us predict who is at greatest risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease and then treat them early,” Dr. Small says.
A clinical diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is supported with biological tests, but, says Joshua Grill, PhD, director of the Katherine and Benjamin Kagan Treatment Development Program in the Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research at UCLA, it would be ideal to address Alzheimer’s disease before it reaches the stage where patients develop dementia. “We aim to be able to diagnose and treat the disease before it affects the way people live their lives,” says Dr. Grill.
Diagnosis is important because reversible causes of dementia, such as vitamin B deficiency or abnormalities in thyroid function, can be treated. There are currently no drugs for Alzheimer’s disease that change the course of the underlying disease once it begins – only medications that help patients deal with symptoms. But researchers hope that by catching the problem early, they can give themselves the best shot at slowing the disease with investigational medications in clinical trials.