ARLINGTON, Texas — Twice in six months, Bobbie Wilburn walked home from the grocery store because her car had been stolen.
It hadn’t. She just couldn’t remember where she parked.
Those 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.
“It was excruciating for us. I’ve always seen my mom as the lady who could do anything,” Hill said.
There is 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.
“In 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.
An 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.
Alzheimer’s 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.
“It’s 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 Center.
New blood tests may change all that one day.
In a 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 lipids.
In the 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.
While 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.
The goal is for the test to become standard, like cholesterol screening, for people over 65 who go in for their annual physical, O’Bryant said.
A simple 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 said
Even if 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.
“For 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.”
“I 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.
“The 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.”