Texas — Twice in six months, Bobbie Wilburn walked home from
the grocery store because her car had been stolen.
She just couldn’t remember where she parked.
incidents and others in an escalating series of memory lapses
and questionable judgment calls led the family to take away
Wilburn’s car keys, disconnect her oven and stove, and
eventually decide that she could no longer live alone safely,
said her daughter Barrie Page Hill of Arlington, Texas.
Wilburn, 79, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease
about six years ago, now lives with Hill’s family and
requires constant care.
was excruciating for us. I’ve always seen my mom as the lady
who could do anything," Hill said. "It’s a
horrible, horrible disease. I hate what it’s done to my mom.
I hate what it’s done to my family."
Wilburn has coherent days, Hill called the disease a
"time bomb" ticking away in her mother’s brain.
is a long-term illness that she will have for the rest of her
life. It would be tremendous if they could find a cure for
this," Hill said.
no known cure. But researchers, including those at the
University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth,
are developing blood tests designed to help doctors more
quickly detect Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and mild
cognitive impairment such as Parkinson’s disease. Advance
detection helps patients begin taking better care of
themselves, researchers say, and such breakthroughs will boost
efforts to develop medications to delay or even reverse the
effects of Alzheimer’s.
the Alzheimer’s world, we don’t detect the disease until
it’s pretty advanced. If someone is clinically diagnosable
with Alzheimer’s, it has been going on for years," said
Sid O’Bryant, interim director of the Institute for Aging
and Alzheimer’s Disease Research at the health science
center. "We need to be able to detect it earlier and
earlier so we can create new ways to prevent the disease
itself and do early treatment so we can be most effective in
treating our patients."
estimated half-million Americans each year are affected by
Alzheimer’s, a degenerative brain disease, which researchers
believe is surpassed only by heart disease and cancer as the
leading cause of death in the United States, according to a
study published this month.
robs patients of their memories. I find that particularly
disturbing," said O’Bryant, whose grandmother died with
Alzheimer’s. "Our memories are intimately linked to who
we are. It slowly erodes away the person himself. … Toward
the end of the disease, it’s not the same person. That takes
a huge toll on families."
research is decades behind cardiovascular and cancer research,
and new medications haven’t hit the market in years, some
neurologists say, partly because of the difficulty in
diagnosing patents and enrolling them in clinical trials early
enough to test the effectiveness of new medications and
treatments, researchers say.
been a decade since we’ve had a new medication come
available so we can treat the disease. It’s very
frustrating," said Dr. Kevin Conner, neurologist and
medical director at Texas Health Arlington Memorial’s Stroke
blood tests may change all that one day.
study published in Nature Medicine this month, researchers
made international headlines after unveiling a
first-of-its-kind blood test they say can predict with 90
percent accuracy whether a healthy person will develop
Alzheimer’s within two to three years. The test is based on
whether the person has lowered levels of particular fatty
Rochester Aging Study, launched in 2007, the researchers
collected blood samples from more than 500 healthy people
older than 70. Five years later, they further examined the
samples from the people who had developed Alzheimer’s or
other mild cognitive problems and found that 10 specific
lipids were at lower levels than normal, possibly an early
signal that the disease has begun breaking down brain cells,
according an article about the study on the University of
Rochester Medical Center website.
ability to identify individuals who are at risk of developing
Alzheimer’s before the clinical manifestation of cognitive
impairment has long been a holy grail of the neuromedicine
community," said Dr. Mark Mapstone, a neuropsychologist
at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and
Dentistry, and lead author of the study. "Current efforts
to develop a treatment for this disease are coming up short
because they are probably being used too late. Biomarkers that
can allow us to intervene early in the course of the disease
could be a game-changer."
neurologists say a predictive blood test for Alzheimer’s won’t
be available to the public anytime soon, it could help
researchers identify at-risk candidates for clinical trials.
is a good step to say that this might be used to identify
someone at higher risk that we might enroll in therapy or give
medication," said Dr. Diana Kerwin, director of Texas
Alzheimer’s and Memory Disorders and chief of geriatrics at
Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas.
and O’Bryant both caution that the Rochester study
population was small and that the researchers’ work needs to
be replicated by other laboratories.
is a solid first step but it’s still a first step and a lot
of work remains to be done," O’Bryant said.
Texas, other researchers are preparing to launch their own
five-year study to evaluate a different type of blood test
they said primary-care physicians could one day use to screen
elderly patients faster and less expensively for signs of
an associate professor at the health science center, leads a
team of researchers who’ve spent a decade developing and
refining the serum protein-based blood test.
proposed screening tool, which researchers hope can identify
neurological diseases through certain blood proteins, would
help primary-care physicians more accurately and easily
determine whether patients should be referred to a specialist.
Currently, Alzheimer’s is diagnosed through expensive,
invasive procedures such as spinal taps and brain imaging.
difficult and cumbersome to get the diagnosis," O’Bryant
team is awaiting word from the National Institutes of Health
on whether the researchers will receive a $6 million grant to
study the test further. If approved, the study would launch
this year and involve 3,000 older patients from the Fort Worth
is for the test to become standard, like cholesterol
screening, for people over 65 who go in for their annual
physical, O’Bryant said.
blood test would be more objective and effective than relying
on patients to bring up memory concerns on their own or count
on primary-care physicians to ask about them specifically, O’Bryant
you consider the average length of time (for an annual exam)
is 18 minutes, even brief cognitive assessments are difficult
to fit into that," O’Bryant said. "At the annual
exam, when people are getting their normal blood work, this
blood test can be added to it. It doesn’t change the
physician’s or the patient’s time."
the predictive test were available in a doctor’s office
today, Hill said, she isn’t sure she would want to know
whether she faces the same disease as her mother.
some families, it might be helpful to know what is up ahead.
Do I want to know right now? Honestly, probably not,"
said Hill, who also has a daughter in college. "I’m
dealing with all I can deal with. I’m caring for my mom. I
wouldn’t want to worry about me."
knowing about a risk could help someone decide to eat better,
exercise and address other health issues, such as diabetes, to
fight the effects of Alzheimer’s, she said.
people could prepare, then maybe this study is incredible for
us. If you can take preventive measures and stave off the
inevitability, that is key," Hill said.
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said she said saw signs of trouble four or five years before
her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Putting the wrong
type of soap in the dishwasher was one thing. Walking a mile
and a half home through road construction on busy North
Collins Street because the car was lost at the grocery store
was too much, Hill said.
enabled her a lot longer than we should have," Hill said.
"We were trying to respect her independence and her
estimated 5.1 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease,
according to the National Institute on Aging. In 2010, the
average annual cost to care for an elderly person with
dementia was projected at $41,000 to $56,000.
changes Hill and her family have made include switching from
full-time work to part time, moving into a larger home and
hiring assistants to help with her mother’s care.
understand from research, we’re about to reach some epidemic
proportions," Hill said. "As baby boomers age, we
are seeing more and more cases and more cases of early onset.
That is troubling to me.
cost and effort associated with caring for someone with
Alzheimer’s is astronomical," she said. "It’s
physically demanding but the challenges emotionally and
mentally are draining, too."