In my 40 years as a physician and scientist, I have learned a lot about Alzheimer’s disease. And as the son of a father with Alzheimer’s, I have seen firsthand the serious financial and emotional burden it places on patients and their families. I know the incredible difference early detection can make.

The need for new tests

Today, most Alzheimer’s patients are diagnosed after they begin to exhibit signs of dementia. The majority of older people don’t receive any kind of cognitive testing until there is a problem. Imagine if doctors only took your blood pressure after you’d had a heart attack. That is what happens to most dementia patients.

Part of the issue is the lack of good tests. Primary care doctors typically use a short cognitive assessment, which can detect problems but not accurately diagnose Alzheimer’s. PET scans that indicate beta-amyloid plaques are also available, but they are expensive and not covered by Medicare or most insurance companies.

The Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, where I serve as chief science officer, is a leading funder of new tests for Alzheimer’s. We are driving the development of blood tests, MRIs, PET scans and other biomarkers that will enable doctors to diagnose Alzheimer’s early and accurately.

A recent report estimates that early detection for Alzheimer’s could save as much as $7.9 trillion dollars in health and caregiving costs. It would enable patients to make important decisions before they experience cognitive impairment and plan for long-term care.

An early risk indicator

Early detection for Alzheimer’s could save as much as $7.9 trillion dollars in health and caregiving costs.

More importantly, if patients were diagnosed when they only had mild cognitive impairment (MCI), they could make lifestyle changes and participate in clinical trials. (Patients with MCI have memory issues a little worse than normal for their age, but no problems completing daily tasks.) We know that not all patients who get MCI will go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease. The research isn’t conclusive, but there is some evidence to suggest that exercise, adequate sleep, stress reduction and a brain healthy diet could reduce the odds of getting Alzheimer’s.

And there are drugs in clinical trials now that are recruiting patients with MCI. One phase 3 trial is testing a drug called AGB 101. It’s the first to target brain overactivity, which is common in patients with MCI. It’s possible that by calming this overactivity, AGB 101 could prevent MCI from progressing to Alzheimer’s disease, or at least slow that progression.

Detecting Alzheimer’s before patients develop dementia could reduce its financial toll and pave the way for prevention and treatment options. That’s why I and so many others in our field are committed to developing diagnostic tests for Alzheimer’s as quickly as we can.