While children of Alzheimer's patients face a higher risk of developing the disease, there is some good news on the horizon. Researchers say that the disease could be detected decades in advance, if both parents are sufferers.
A study published by the American Academy of Neurology found brain scans can detect the disease even before symptoms appears. Researchers studied the brain scans of adults without Alzheimer's, between the ages of 32 and 72. They were split evenly into four groups: either mothers or fathers with the disease, both parents with the disease, or no family history at all. Of the 52 participants, the group where both parents were Alzheimer's patients displayed more abnormalities in the brain scans, which showed brain structure, volume, and plaques.
"Studies show that by the time people come in for a diagnosis, there may be a large amount of irreversible brain damage already present," said researcher Lisa Mosconi of the New York University School of Medicine. "This is why it is ideal that we find signs of the disease in high-risk people before symptoms occur."
Since there is no treatment for the disease, early detection is key in managing it. The earlier the disease is detected, the more effective treatments can be. Early detection also provides more time to plan for the future.
While researchers have yet to pinpoint the exact cause of the disease, many studies have shown genetics may play an important role. A 2011 Duke University study found close family members of Alzheimer's sufferers are more than twice as likely to develop the disease than people without any family history. Further, people with more than one first-degree relative with the disease are at an even higher risk than those with just one immediate family member with the disease, according to the Alzheimer's Association.
"Our study also suggests that there might be genes that predispose individuals to develop brain Alzheimer's pathology as a function of whether one parent or both parents have the disease. We do not yet know which genes, if any, are responsible for these early changes," Mosconi said. "We hope that our study will be helpful to future genetic investigations."