There is no test doctors can use to conclusively determine whether someone will get Alzheimer’s disease. “If you are in your 20s or 30s and want to know if you will get the disease, we don’t have information to determine that now,” said Heather Snyder, director of medical and scientific operations at the Alzheimer’s Association.

One thing everyone agrees on: There are a lot of unknowns when it comes to Alzheimer’s disease. “We don’t know the exact cause of Alzheimer’s, we have hints and some pieces of information,” Snyder said. One thing that is known, if you have a first-degree relative, such as a parent or sibling, with the disease, you are at an increased risk. “But that is by no means definitive that you will get the disease,” she said.

Snyder also points out that Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and, she said, “the only one in the top 10 that we don’t have a way to stop or slow or prevent.”

That could be on the verge of changing. Doctors at three U.S. medical centers are gathering as much information as they can about patients and using it to give them an early intervention plan to slow or prevent the disease, even though it’s not known whether the patient will actually get it.

Personal and professional

…In Los Angeles, Dr. Dean Sherzai is also personally invested in the disease. His aunt died earlier this month from Alzheimer’s and he has lost three grandparents to the disease. This propelled him to the helm of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Program at Cedars Sinai.

Patients are assessed by genetic factors, blood tests and imaging (using a retinal scanner to look for amyloid protein accumulation in the eye). The focus is on lifestyle (i.e. music exposure, word games), nutrition, physical activity and socialization. These measures have shown that they can delay the progression of the disease.

Sherzai is also doing research treating patients early with a diabetes drug to target insulin resistance in the brain, and an inflammatory drug used to treat multiple sclerosis. Early intervention is key. “I think we fail good studies because we are doing it too late,” he said.

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