With a bigger share of Canadians than ever aging into their golden years, questions about how to diagnose and treat dementia are becoming more pressing.
That’s why news coming out of Saint Paul’s hospital of a new test to help diagnose Alzheimer’s early has many people hopeful.
Dr. Mari DeMarco, a clinical chemist at the hospital, says it could have a big impact on patients and families grappling with a truly cruel illness: It has the potential to spot the disease 10-20 years before it sets in.
How it works
While it shows great promise as a diagnostic tool – the new test won’t be comfortable for patients.
It involves taking a sample of the fluid that surrounds and buffers the brain, which DeMarco says picks up reliable markers of the disease as they’re shed.
“Unfortunately, of course, we can’t access the brain. But very close to it is the fluid surrounding the brain. So that’s where we take our specimen, is the cerebospinal fluid.”
She says clinical studies have shown these markers to be an extremely effective predictor – often decades before serious symptoms take hold. But she says they haven’t really been used by frontline doctors yet.
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How it helps
DeMarco says the test could be particuarly useful for catching the disease in patients who are starting to have problems but can’t figure out why.
“They might have been referred from physician to physician, where the physicians are having trouble pointing to a diagnosis. This tends to happen early in the disease course where the symptoms might be really mild.”
She says that’s good news for doctors, who will have clarity – but even better for patients who will be empowered to take ownership of their future.
“Being able to make their own decisions about long term care, about their own finances, and plan for what’s going to happen down the road.”
DeMarco says researchers will be looking at how much the test helps patients, how it benefits by doctors, and how it might have a positive impact on the healthcare system by cutting down on referrals and tests.
She says doctors will be running a trial this summer, before looking at how to bring it to all patients in the longer term.