(02/11/14) - We classify cancer in "stages". Soon, doctors may do the same with
Alzheimer's Disease. Breaking Alzheimer's down into three stages is offering new
insights into the mysterious illness. It could also mean earlier diagnosis and
better treatment for a lot of people.
Sister Barbara Schlatter has been a nun for 50 years, "I entered the convent in 1963."
She has helped a lot of people during that time, but two people Sister Barbara could not help were her parents. They both passed away with Alzheimer's. Now, sister Barbara says she worries about her aging brain, "when I can't get a word like that, I think, uh oh, is this it?"
Recently, investigators found a way to stage the disease during a period they call pre-clinical Alzheimer's.
"The data suggests that the pathology starts anywhere from 10-20 years before any sign of clinical symptoms," says Dr. Anne Fagan, a researcher at Washington University.
Researchers divided pre-clinical Alzheimer's into three stages, based on results from spinal fluid and imaging tests. They studied 311 patients. The pre-clinical stages are based on bio-markers that indicate how much amyloid plaque and tangle-related proteins are found in the brain. Staging also centers on whether patients eventually go on to show symptoms of memory decline.
"Once you get dementia, that is actually the end stage," Dr. Fagan said.
Sister Barbara hopes the research will one day save others from the heartache she felt watching her parents fade away.
About a third of the patients studied fell into one of the stages. This percentage matched findings from autopsy studies, suggesting that Alzheimer's starts long before symptoms develop. These researchers believe patients with pre-clinical Alzheimer's could be an important target for new therapies.
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