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A quicker and less expensive way to help identify someone’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s might be available soon.
Phosphorylated tau 217 (also known as p-tau217) and its damaging counterpart, beta amyloid, are both key biomarkers of Alzheimer’s. The proteins are currently only identifiable with a brain scan or spinal tap, but new research has found a blood test that can identify p-tau217.
“And that is a revolutionary change,” Paul Newhouse, M.D., director of the Center for Cognitive Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and clinical core leader for the Vanderbilt Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center told AARP.
The study, published Jan. 22 in JAMA Neurology, followed 786 people, 504 females and 282 men who were on average 66 years old. Researchers conducted brain scans and spinal taps, as well as blood samples on each participant. The data and those samples came from the Translational Biomarkers in Aging and Dementia, Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention and Sant Pau Initiative on Neurodegeneration.
The researchers found that when they tested a participant’s blood sample it showed similar results to the participant’s spinal tap or brain scan.
Only about 20 percent of the study participants had blood test results that, in a clinical setting, would have required further testing with imaging or a spinal tap due to being unclear.
The simple blood test was found to be up to 96 percent accurate in identifying elevated levels of beta amyloid and up to 97 percent accurate in identifying p-tau217, the report stated.
The test is currently not available to the public (and other, similar tests, are in development), but is being used in research studies. However, experts agree this is one step closer to a more equitable and accessible approach to Alzheimer’s care. The test is different from a consumer test released last year that measures markers of beta amyloid proteins, which some caution may not be truly predictive of Alzheimer’s risk.
If this testing is implemented, physicians can test patients in-clinic and direct them to a specialist sooner. Newhouse told AARP that the test “could save a lot of time and money when it comes to making an Alzheimer’s diagnosis” as “PET scans and spinal taps can cost thousands of dollars and are performed only in hospitals or specialty clinics.”
It’s estimated that by 2050, 150 million people worldwide will develop Alzheimer’s, with the disease disproportionately affecting women. Women are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s and some experts say this is because on average women live longer than men, but lifestyle is a key factor.
Stress and immunity levels have been linked to an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s, and even a drop in estrogen levels as women enter menopause.
“These hormonal changes might predispose women to have a higher sensitivity to developing Alzheimer’s disease,” Women’s Brain Project CEO Dr. Antonella Santuccione Chadha explained in a recent Being Patient Live Talk. “The drop in estrogen that one experiences during menopause might be one of the predisposing factors.” Dr. Chadra adds that women are often caregivers, which increases their risk for depression and social isolation, both risk factors.
While family history is not necessary for an individual to develop Alzheimer’s, research has shown that those who have a parent or sibling with the disease are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
And while you cannot control your genetics, lifestyle changes have been shown to lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, especially when multiple behaviors are combined. Powerful changes that you can make include:
Exercise regularly. The CDC recommends adults have at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week and two or more days of muscle-strengthening activities.
Practice good sleep hygiene. It‘s recommended that adults get 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night for optimal brain health, and to go to bed and wake up around the same time each day.
Flex your brain. Your brain is a muscle, and needs exercise too. Opt for a challenging puzzle, word searches, strategy games, or Sudoku.
Stay informed. The changes that come with aging can be scary. Staying informed by reading up on the latest science can help ease any anxiety.