Revolutionary Alzheimer’s Treatments Can’t Help Patients Who Go Undiagnosed

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The Dementia Revolution: A New Era of Treatments and the Urgent Need for Earlier Diagnosis

Dementia, a devastating neurological condition that robs individuals of their memory, cognitive abilities, and independence, has long been a formidable foe. It stands as the biggest killer in the UK, surpassing even cancer as the leading cause of death for women since 2011. Hilary Evans, CEO of Alzheimer’s Research UK and cochair of the UK Dementia Mission, paints a stark picture: “One in two of us will be affected by dementia either by caring for someone with the condition or developing it ourselves.”

This staggering statistic underscores the urgent need for progress in the fight against dementia, and thankfully, the tide is turning.

A New Dawn in Alzheimer’s Treatment:

For years, research into Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, was plagued by a crippling lack of breakthroughs. However, a wave of optimism is crashing over the field, driven by revolutionary new treatments that aim to tackle the root cause of the disease.

2022 saw the emergence of lecanemab, an antibody drug that demonstrated promising results in slowing cognitive decline. And in May 2023, Eli Lilly announced that its new Alzheimer’s drug, donanemab, significantly slowed cognitive decline by 35 percent. These drugs mark a paradigm shift: they are the first ever Alzheimer’s treatments to directly address the underlying pathology rather than merely alleviating symptoms.

Both donanemab and lecanemab work by removing amyloid plaques, toxic proteins that build up in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients and disrupt brain function.

“For a long time, dementia research has been a costly, even hopeless cause,” Evans states, “But we are now at this real tipping point for change with the arrival of the first ever Alzheimer’s drugs that tackle the root cause of the disease rather than just the symptoms.”

While these breakthroughs are undeniably groundbreaking, it’s crucial to acknowledge that they are still in their early stages.

“Like many first-generation treatments, however, the benefits are modest and also come with serious side effects,” Evans cautions. The path towards a cure for Alzheimer’s is a long one, and these initial treatments, like the early drugs for HIV, are paving the way for future generations of even more effective therapies.

The Road Ahead: More Than Just Treatments

The promise of these revolutionary treatments is undeniable, but they are only part of the equation. While the focus on new treatments rightly receives considerable attention, a parallel battle is being waged – the fight for early diagnosis.

The Challenge of Early Diagnosis

Despite the advancements in treatment, diagnosis of dementia remains a significant obstacle. Recent research published in the New England Journal of Medicine highlighted the alarming fact that individuals can be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s for up to 20 years before detectable symptoms manifest.

This underscores the vital need for earlier diagnosis, not just for the sake of accessing new treatments but also for enabling timely interventions that can potentially slow disease progression.

However, current diagnostic methods are woefully inadequate. The most common tool remains pen-and-paper cognitive tests, a far cry from accurate and reliable detection. Only 2 percent of patients undergo the gold standard test – a combination of lumbar puncture and PET brain scans.

The UK government has set a national dementia diagnosis target of 67 percent of patients, but this target is missed in many areas. The wait for diagnosis can be agonizingly long, averaging two years, and reaching a staggering four years for patients under 65. “One in three people with dementia in England never get a diagnosis at all,” Evans notes. “This isn’t something we would accept in any other health condition.”

Revolutionizing Diagnosis: Embracing Technology and Innovation

The need for a fundamental shift in diagnostic approaches is clear. There is a growing call for the adoption of new technologies and innovative methodologies to bridge the diagnostic gap.

Digital Cognitive Tests: These tests, utilizing smartphone apps and other digital platforms, can be administered remotely and offer real-time evaluation, facilitating faster access to care.

Eye Testing as a Potential Diagnostic Tool: Researchers at Moorfields Eye Hospital are leading the way in exploring the potential of eye examinations for early detection of Alzheimer’s. The retina, closely linked to the brain, can provide valuable clues about neurological health. “The retina is a particularly attractive target because it’s closely related to brain tissue and can be examined noninvasively during routine eye checks,” explains Evans.

Blood Biomarkers: Alzheimer’s Research UK is actively funding research into the development of blood tests to detect biomarkers for the disease. “Research has shown that a blood test could be as effective as a standard lumbar puncture and a brain scan, and it could be used as an initial triaging tool,” Evans emphasizes. “People are naturally much keener to take a blood test than something that’s very invasive. This could revolutionize the way that dementia is diagnosed.”

Investing in the Future: A Collective Effort

The journey towards a future where dementia is no longer a devastating disease requires a multifaceted approach. It demands a concerted effort from researchers, clinicians, policymakers, and the public.

Increased Funding for Research: Continued investment in research is crucial to developing even more effective and safer treatments, along with innovative diagnostic tools.

Improved Access to Diagnosis: Efforts must be made to ensure all patients, regardless of age or location, have timely and accurate access to diagnostic services.

Public Awareness and Education: Raising public awareness about dementia, removing stigma, and empowering individuals to recognize early warning signs are crucial steps in promoting early detection.

“I’m in my mid-forties and I really think our generation will benefit from the progress that we are now witnessing,” Evans says, emphasizing the hope that fuels the fight against dementia. “Developing safer and more effective drugs is really a matter of when and not if.”

The advancements in treatment, along with the increasing focus on improving diagnosis, offer a glimmer of hope in the fight against dementia. However, the battles are far from over. Only by uniting researchers, clinicians, policymakers, and the public can we truly turn the tide against this debilitating disease and create a future where dementia is no longer a fear, but a challenge we can overcome.

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Sarah Mitchell
Sarah Mitchell
Sarah Mitchell is a versatile journalist with expertise in various fields including science, business, design, and politics. Her comprehensive approach and ability to connect diverse topics make her articles insightful and thought-provoking.