Scientists at Boston University on January 6, 2017, issued the results of a study that sheds new light on the possibilities for future diagnostic procedures in healthcare. In their long study of longevity and disability, the university scientists took nearly 5,000 blood samples from persons between 30 and 110 years of age to analyze the blood for biomarkers. The indications analyzed by the scientists show that biomarkers may be used to estimate the risk for developing many conditions, including dementia. The scientists also noticed a connection between biomarkers and cardiac diseases, cancer and more. The promise of the study is that with further research, scientists could test a patient’s blood and evaluate the risk of developing certain conditions. This, in turn, would enable doctors to treat and prevent early-onset symptoms of many diseases.
Dementia is a cognitive decay of brain connections which cuts off access to various parts of the human brain. It causes a wide array of symptoms unique to each dementia sufferer but typically features memory loss, confusion, balance difficulties, depression, confusion and, eventually, death. Dementia’s principal kin are Alzheimer’s Disease, Lewy Body Dementia, and Parkinson’s Disease. Currently, it can only be conclusively diagnosed through autopsy after death, by which doctors examine a patient’s brain for decay patterns linked to dementia.
Biomarkers are biological evidence used to diagnose a disease. They differ depending on specific diseases. For example, a person with diabetes whose pancreas does not produce enough insulin to process sugar in the blood will frequently have extremely high blood glucose (sugar) rates.
The Boston University study underscores the importance of testing and analyzing biomarkers. The university scientists found that certain biomarkers indicated an increased risk of diseases that are often difficult to diagnose without symptoms, such as cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases. Since dementia cannot now be diagnosed until after death, treatment for dementia can be haphazard and only begins after a person exhibits symptoms. Since dementia symptoms pose significant health hazards for seniors, including wandering, forgetfulness, confusion, memory loss, and balance problems, identifying dementia before it begins can reduce its mortality and injury rate. It appears that further testing is necessary before changes are made to medical testing procedures and diagnostics.
The hope is that screenings and testing for diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s will be simple, inexpensive and effective. Dementia patients may not have to wait for symptoms to appear before doctors begin treatment. Preventive measures will stop the condition long before it starts and thus seniors live longer, healthier, happier lives. Eventually, a complete cure for all causes of dementia may be possible, but for the moment caregivers and seniors should approach the results of this study with caution.
What has been learned
Sometimes, it is difficult to identify the use of specific scientific studies. Most only make small advances in a field, which do not generate headlines for the public. The Boston University study shows promise for future testing for dementia but does not conclusively show for certain who will develop dementia as they age. The research shows that biomarkers can help understand who is likely to develop a disease but cannot guarantee it. Encouraging other scientists to take up the testing and analysis will significantly advance the testing procedures in coming years.
However limited the scope of this study, it provides caregivers and their advocates with crucial information. Knowing the risk of a disease or disability helps keep seniors safer and healthier. For example, if a doctor identifies a woman likely to develop cancer, he or she can order preventive treatment and more frequent screenings for tumor development. The earlier a tumor is detected and treated, the likelier a woman will live longer. Persons who are likely to develop dementia can adjust their diet to better promote brain health if their blood contains biomarkers linked to dementia. Such persons may also participate in studies, obtain earlier access to medicines, and incorporate important safety measures in their home and community before they wander, become confused and get lost in public. These results should not be downplayed because they are a leap forward in healthcare diagnosis and treatment and could extend the lives of many people.
Lerche, Olivia. Dementia diagnosed by blood test: Spot age-related disease before symptoms show. Express, January 6, 2017. Available at http://www.express.co.uk/life-style/health/750630/dementia-UK-signs-disease-blood-test. Retrieved January 13, 2017.
Paola Sebastiani, Bharat Thyagarajan, Fangui Sun, Nicole Schupf, Anne B. Newman, Monty Montano, Thomas T. Perls. Biomarker signatures of aging. Aging Cell, January 6, 2017. Available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/acel.12557/full. Retrieved January 13, 2017.