Fear of Alzheimer’s disease ranks second only to cancer as America’s biggest health worry, surveys have found.
So when new brain scan technology became available in the spring of 2012 to test for this progressive form of dementia, the decision on whether to have it seemed like a no-brainer: Why would anyone who’s worried about getting Alzheimer’s even hesitate? Actually, there are several good reasons to be wary.
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The technology uses a PET (positron emission tomography) scan and a radioactive dye — which is injected in a patient’s arm vein, then travels to the brain — to show clumps of sticky proteins called beta amyloid plaques in the brain, a physical hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. Previously, the only way to uncover the plaques was to perform a brain tissue examination after a patient’s death.
The trouble is, the new scan gives a false-positive result about 30 percent of the time, notes Gary Small, M.D., director of the UCLA Longevity Center and co-author of the best-selling book The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program.
You can imagine the horror of being told that you are on the verge of Alzheimer’s, perhaps drastically altering your life — and then the disease never materializes.
What’s more, "Alzheimer’s disease is not just defined by amyloid plaques but also by tau tangles (twisted fibers found inside the brain’s cells) — and this scan doesn’t reveal those," Dr. Small adds. So even if the scan shows you are all clear, there is a chance you could still get Alzheimer’s.
Many insurance plans, including Medicare, don’t cover the cost, which can be several thousand dollars.
Perhaps the biggest drawback of all is that there aren’t any treatments proven to reverse, halt, or even significantly slow the downward trajectory of Alzheimer’s.
"Why get the test?" Dr. Small asks. "If this scan was connected to a treatment, that would be a different story."
A better approach, Dr. Small says, is to use healthy lifestyle measures to protect the brain from Alzheimer’s. These include exercising regularly, consistently getting a good night’s sleep, engaging in mental workouts to stay sharp, reducing stress, staying socially connected, and consuming a healthy, brain-friendly diet that’s rich in antioxidants and healthy fats.
In particular, omega-3 fatty acid (found in fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and sardines, as well as walnuts, canola oil, chia seeds, and flaxseeds) can have anti-inflammatory effects on the brain and body. This is significant because inflammation is a key factor in the development of Alzheimer’s, said Dr. Small.
"For now, prevention is the key to protecting our brains," he says.
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