The Power of Knowing: Genetic Tests For Alzheimer’s Risks

July 16, 2009 at 2:41 pm Leave a comment

If you could take a blood test to find out how likely you are to develop DNA Image from U.S. Department of Energy Genome Programs  http://genomics.energy.gov Alzheimer’s, would you take it?

Would the benefits of knowing  help you to prepare for the possibility, or would it stress and perhaps depress you?

For quite a while now, doctors  have had access to genetic testing that can reveal a significantly higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s – but it’s been rarely used.   Why? Because most doctors believe that knowing would only stress and depress patients, lowering the quality of life and providing no real benefit.

The tests, they argue, do not definitely predict Alzheimer’s; after all,  having the gene (or even two copies of the gene) does not make dementia inevitable, it just ups the likelihood.   And people who don’t have the gene can still develop of Alzheimer’s  it’s just less likely.  So even if  the tests reveal that you don’t have the gene, you’re not in the clear, yet!

Since the results of the tests aren’t conclusive, and doctors have no clear and proven way to completely prevent the disease, they’ve  seen no medical benefit in the tests to balance what they assumed was a psychological harm.   With stress, anxiety and depression as known contributors to memory loss, and possible risk factors for dementia, it seemed to make sense to try and avoid extra memory-stealing stress, and so the tests have been avoided.

But it turns out, knowing may not be stressful after all.

According to recently released research, that negative psychological impact is just not there.

In a study known as “Reveal”, a group of patients with close relatives with Alzheimer’s were given the test to determine if they had the high-risk Alzheimer’s gene.   About two-thirds of the participants were told the results  of their test, and the remaining third were not told the results.  Six weeks later, the entire group were given assessments for distress, anxiety, and  depression – the assessment was repeated in six months, and a year.

The result?   There was no difference in the psychological stress levels of the two groups; and the people who learned they carried the risky gene weren’t  showing any more signs of depression or anxiety than the group that didn’t know their results.

So, what does this mean for us?

In light of this study, more doctors may be willing to suggest or allow us to be tested for the genetic risk factors,  more willing to let us make up our own minds about whether or not we want to  be tested.

And while there’s still no proven method of preventing or curing Alzheimer’s disease, there are treatments that help with symptoms.   Knowing that we carry a genetic risk factor might well encourage us to stay on top of the risks,  seeking diagnosis and treatment earlier.

DNA Image from U.S. Department of Energy Genome Programs  http://genomics.energy.govKnowing our odds might also encourage us to take earlier steps towards brain health and fitness – steps which, while not specifically proven to prevent Alzheimer’s, are increasingly promising approaches.  The current wisdom is that the earlier we start building a cognitive reserve, the better.  (See Tuesday’s post about early language skill, and how it relates to Alzheimer’s  symptoms)

Additionally, having a more accurate view of Alzheimer’s allows for  more informed decisions about their future life plans…  for instance, if someone is weighing whether to stay  in their home, or move into a retirement property, a more accurate risk assessment might help.

So what do you think?

Do you have close family members with Alzheimer’s, and would you like to know if they passed a  genetic risk along to you?  Would you consider asking your doctor for this test?

What  changes would you make in your life if you found out you had, say, a 50% chance of developing the disease? What *wouldn’t* you change?

They’re interesting questions, and worth thinking about.

Entry filed under: Supporting Science & Medicine. Tags: , , , , .

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A healthy mind and brain is key to a healthy, active life. Come along for the ride as we explore the basics of brain health, with topics including:
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Authored by Tori Deaux
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