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Alzheimer's Risk: Would You Want To Know?

Brain Scan Alzheimers Disease

If you were likely to get Alzheimer's disease in the future, would you want to know? The question is largely hypothetical at the moment, but might not be for much longer.

The Washington Post explored the issue earlier this week, noting that a 2011 poll found two-thirds of Americans would want to know if they were destined for Alzheimer's -- even though there's currently no cure. And while there are several drugs that treat Alzheimer's symptoms, their benefits are modest and palliative; none affect the underlying disease or slow its progression.

Knowing risk could carry some advantages, allowing people to make preparations for their future care and take steps that may slow the disease's onset. But as of now, tests to identify Alzheimer's risk -- MRI scans that identify brain plaques or measure brain shrinkage; blood or spinal fluid tests measuring certain protein levels -- are seldom covered by health insurance and of little predictive value. Yes, brain shrinkage and beta-amyloid plaques are highly correlated with Alzheimer's. No, not everyone who exhibits these will go on to develop the disease (conversely, their absence at the time of testing doesn't necessarily mean you're in the clear).

Genetic testing can identify whether you carry a gene variant associated with Alzheimer's, but this, too, provides no guarantees. Its presence means you're at heightened risk -- but by no means doomed, since the disease is caused by a complicated interplay of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors.

"The things we know that really impact the disease are related to lifestyle," George Perry, professor of biology at the University of Texas and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease told the Washington Post.

Be mentally and physically active, eat a diet rich in fruit and vegetables. These reduce the risk of developing the disease by at least half."

Not so long ago, people thought Alzheimer's developed around the time cognitive decline became noticeable. But researchers have recently discovered that the brain changes associated with Alzheimer's could begin years or even decades before symptoms show up.

Wednesday Quick Hits: 

  • Boomers' indie rock king. Brent Grulke, who died yesterday from a heart attack at age 52, was the creative director of Austin-based indie rock fest SXSW.

  • Federal pensions payouts. A USA Today analysis found more than 21,000 retired federal workers receive government pensions of $100,000 or more per year. Retired law enforcement folks are the most common among this 1.2 percent of federal retirees, including 326 Drug Enforcement Administration agents, 237 IRS investigators and 186 FBI agents.

  • Smartphone nation. Half of Americans now own smartphones, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Photo: Istockphoto

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