UW–Madison researchers are making strides in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease by studying people who don’t have it.
“We want to be able to identify risk decades before someone becomes symptomatic, because that’s how we’re going to prevent it,” says Mark Sager, director of the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute and professor of medicine at the School of Medicine and Public Health.
The key players are the more than 1,400 dedicated members of the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention, people who travel from around the state and the country to take part. The registry, launched ten years ago, is now the largest and oldest study of healthy people with a family history of the disease. The resulting research has shown the significance of family history as a risk factor for the disease.
“The entire field is following our lead,” Sager says. “Everybody is talking about earlier, earlier, earlier.”
More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, a number that is expected to increase as Baby Boomers enter their sixties.
Sager and Sterling Johnson, associate professor of medicine and researcher at the Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Center at the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital, recently conducted two studies of registry participants who carry a newly identified gene and an established risk gene for Alzheimer’s.
Their results show that the disease could be diagnosed as long as twenty years before symptoms develop. Sager says being able to identify early changes in the brain is akin to doctors identifying high cholesterol in patients decades before they develop heart disease.
“We know that heart disease is a disease of a lifetime, and that people have heart attacks not in their twenties, but in their fifties and sixties and seventies,” Sager says. “So it’s not unreasonable to think that Alzheimer’s disease will follow the same pattern.”