The study found large clumps of a toxic protein, amyloid beta, in the brains of individuals with a family history of Alzheimer’s disease even though they were perfectly healthy at the time of testing, Dr. Lisa Mosconi of New York University Langone Medical Centre told Reuters on Monday.
After advanced age, a family history of Alzheimer’s is the single biggest risk factor for developing the disease, and the study came as a shock to individuals who have watched family members struggle with the degenerative disease.
“You think of all the things you think to get tested for,” said Samantha Peate, a 22-year old receptionist at the Lord Lansdowne retirement complex. “To be honest, I’d never really thought that (Alzheimer’s disease) would be an issue until like, retirement.”
Peate, whose grandmother has Alzheimer’s, has worked at the Lord Lansdowne retirement complex for two years and says that she sees a lot of families struggling with loved ones afflicted with the disease.
“Living with someone like that is really, really hard,” she said.
The genetic nature of Alzheimer’s means that once someone in a family gets the disease, there is a greater chance that that person’s descendants will also be diagnosed, says the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada on their website.
Rob Nettleton, a Carleton student whose grandfather died from Alzheimer’s, says that this is a wake-up call to try and take preventative measures to protect himself in the future.
“I’m always looking for updates,” he said, “like, ‘is there a pill yet? Is there something I can take that will make it go away?’”
The research team that conducted the study told Reuters that they want to follow the people in the study to see whether they develop Alzheimer’s. Their discovery could lead to new ways of identifying the people who are most likely to develop the disease, and may help other teams who are working on better ways to detect early-stage Alzheimer’s, Mosconi said.
While there is no concrete answer as to the cause of Alzheimer’s disease, one theory holds that large deposits, called plaques, of the beta-amyloid protein disrupts the synapse, or communication, between the brain’s neurons.
This disruption would explain the degenerative nature of the disease, as deposits of amyloid beta build-up in the brain as Alzheimer’s progresses, leading to the memory loss and eventually organ failure as the brain can no longer send instructions to the body’s powerhouses.
“This study puts things in perspective,” said Connor McGahey, a young man from Perth whose grandfather was diagnosed eight years ago with Alzheimer’s. “It makes you realize that when you’re young, you aren’t invincible.”
The possibility of pre-diagnosis and early treatment options is something that encourages hope for the future, said Nettleton.
“I get worried, but then, I’m only 22-years old,” said Nettleton. “I’m not going to get–” he paused.
“It’s not going to happen anytime soon, but it’s always in the back of my mind.”