July 17th, 2011
01:00 AM ET
It’s no medical mystery that the most effective way to treat Alzheimer’s disease is early and aggressively. But promising new research out of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, is offering increased hope for earlier detection of the disease.
Falls, it turns out, are more common among individuals with the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s. Researchers at the Knight Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center presented their findings Sunday at the 2011 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Paris. In some instances – according to Maria Carrillo, senior director of medical and scientific relations for the Alzheimer’s Association, so-called silent biological changes in the brain may take place a decade or more before the outward symptoms begin to manifest.
An estimated 5.4 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States, the only one of the top ten causes of death that can’t be prevented, cured, or slowed.
The eight-month study followed 125 cognitively healthy older adults – with and without preclinical Alzheimer’s – who were already enrolled in other studies at ARDC. Each participant was asked to keep a journal of how many times he or she fell over the course of the study (a fall was constituted by “unintentional movement to the floor.”) Additionally, all participants had PET scans analyzed to determine their level of Pittsburgh compound B, or PiB, a substance used in PET scans that can indicate the presence of beta-amyloid plaques, a sign of Alzheimer’s development in the brain. Researchers found twice the risk of falls for people with higher levels of PiB on their scan.
“A fall is dramatic,” says Dr. Ronald Petersen, director of the Mayo Clinic Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. “[They’re] just one index of a risk state. We’re doing a study now at Mayo in Minnesota that’s… looking at a more sensitive measure of motor function than falls. Gait, ability to walk, speed, balance, etc.”
Petersen points out that Alzheimer’s is a multi-system disease. “People who do have instability in their gait probably have a predisposition to cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease in the future.”
The bottom line: A fall by an older adult who is usually steady on his feet may signal a need for diagnostic evaluation.
“I think it would be prudent to have a careful examination by someone who’s comfortable doing a complete psychological exam, either a neurologist, psychiatrist, physician, or internist,” says Gandy, “just to see if you’ve got other cognitive problems.”
But Petersen warns against jumping to conclusions. “It certainly could be your medicines lowering your blood pressures, arthritis, other medical issues, some of which are treatable that may be causing you to fall.”
“At the end of the day,” says Petersen, “if you go through all these things and there’s nothing else going on, it could be a degenerative disease of the brain.” In which case, you’ll be glad you flagged the symptoms earlier rather than later.
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.