Here's something to think about... would you want to know decades in advance if you were going to join the over-5 million americans living with alzheimers disease?
A new medical discovery tells us: changes in the brain happen way before the symptoms are felt.
And that may mean people at risk could be identified long before they start to have any memory loss, which is raising all kinds of tough questions.the story from NBC's chief science correspondent Robert Bazel.
Some members of the Heinrichs family from Davenport, Iowa carry a terrible genetic mutation. If they have it, they will definitely develop Alzheimer's disease usually before age 50. For now they have decided not to know who carries the gene
"We decided we didn't want to know and I think we decided as a collective group that um, we all felt about the same."
By studying 128 members of such families who carry the rare mutation, researchers have discovered a disturbing new aspect of Alzheimer's.
Dr. John Morris, Washington University: "Brain changes that ultimately result in Alzheimer's dementia occur 15 to 20 years before there are any signs of symptoms of dementia."
What happens is a build- up of a protein called beta amyloid -- measured in spinal fluid or with brain scans -- which many scientists believe is the prime cause of Alzheimer's SU Bridge: Alzheimers researchs say that drugs to treat or prevent the disease may have to be given years or even decades before symptoms develop. To try to find those drugs, they'll be testing more and more younger and younger people who could be at risk for the disease far in the future.
Several companies are working on to make drugs to lower beta-amyloid.. If any are successful some doctors believe Alzheimer's testing will become as routine as testing cholesterol for heart disease.
Dr. Sam Gandy Mt. Sinai School of Medicine: "One of the tests that begin to be performed perhaps at age forty on an annual or bi-annual basis to determine who's at the highest risk for Alzheimer's disease."
But until those drugs are available, doctors predict that most people like the Heinrichs family will choose not to know whether they are at risk.
"By not knowing, I'm willing to play the odds that eventually they are going to find a cure for it."