Alzheimer’s: Detection Gets Better, But Not Treatment

Some recent breakthroughs on the Alzheimer’s detection front: First, it was announced last week that researchers have discovered a gene mutation that could triple a person’s risk of getting the disease.

Then, the New York Times reported on new brain-scan technology – on the market since June and growing in popularity – that can clearly show whether the insidious clumps of brain plaque related to Alzheimer’s are present.

While researchers and those who sell scan equipment may be excited about this, the rest of us are a bit more cynical. It’s hard to get pumped up when those who do find out they have the plaque or the gene still can’t do much about it.

Granted, the gene discovery was remarkable. Two groups of researchers, working independently, came to the same conclusion: A mutation of the TREM2 gene fouls up the body’s immune system, keeping it from sweeping away the plaque-forming protein in the brain known as beta-amyloid. The gene is only the second found to greatly increase the risk of Alzheimer’s in older adults.

Researchers called the discovery an “important step” toward unraveling the cause of Alzheimer’s and developing a treatment. Years from now, unfortunately.

For those who suspect their symptoms might be caused by Alzheimer’s, the new scan offers a way to know for sure. The scans show the sticky clumps of protein that, along with dementia, are the signature symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

But, as Times health writer Gina Kolata pointed out in her story, getting a scan comes with serious risks in terms of insurance: “While federal law prevents insurers and employers from discriminating based on genetic tests, it does not apply to scans. People with brain plaques can be denied long-term care insurance,” she wrote.

The scans, which can cost nearly $4,000, are not covered by Medicare.

More than 300 hospitals and imaging centers in most major metropolitan areas are now offering the new technology, according to Eli Lilly, which sells the tracer used to mark plaque for the scan, the Times reported.

One doctor estimates that about 30 percent of people who get the scan turn out not to have Alzheimer’s, although they still could be suffering from another type of dementia.

Those who do find out that it’s Alzheimer’s, however, have few options in terms of treatment. The husband of a 61-year-old woman whose scan showed she did have Alzheimer’s told the Times he wonders if it might have been better not to know the diagnosis. “What am I going to do?’ he asked. “People feel so helpless….”

In other health news:

Is Advair safe? Investigation reveals troubling lapses. An investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel raises questions about popular asthma drug Advair’s safety. The newspaper found Advair recommendations that were written largely by doctors who received money from maker GlaxoSmithKline and other companies that market the drugs. And the Food and Drug Administration sidestepped the concerns of some of its own doctors, who warned of the drug’s risks, especially for children and African Americans, the newspaper found.

Nation’s diabetes rate soars, federal study finds. The Associated Press reports that the nation’s diabetes problem is getting worse, with the rate soaring in Oklahoma and across the South from 1995 through 2010, according to new federal data. The diabetes rate in Oklahoma more than tripled, and Kentucky, Georgia and Alabama also saw dramatic increases, most of this due to weight gain, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed.

Photo: Jon Feingersh/Blend Images/Corbis