After losing father to Alzheimer's man learns about own risk through a study

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For years, Pete Mitchell of Marietta, Georgia, has wondered if he would one day develop Alzheimer's disease like his father. He lost his dad to complications of the disease back in 1999. In his early 60's, Mitchell admits, he has had a few "senior" moments, where his memory has slipped.

"I know we all walk down the road and go, You know, I was talking to... What was that guy's name again," Mitchell says. "We all do it! We walk into a room and think, 'What am I doing here? '"

To get answers, Mitchell joined the Generation Program study at NeuroStudies in Decatur, led by neurologist Dr. Marshall Nash. Last fall, he got a cheek swab to screen for a gene mutation known as APOe4, that could raise his risk of age-related

Alzheimer's disease.

"About 25 percent of people that have that gene will develop Alzheimer's disease by age 85," Dr. Nash says.

The test was painless, but a little unnerving for Mitchell.

"When we got to the swab, that's when it got real: do you, or do you not have it," he asks.

If the answer was "yes," Mitchell would be screened to rule out other causes of memory loss. Then, he would undergo a PET scan to look for a buildup of amyloid protein in his brain. Dr. Nash says most people over 50 have some amyloid build up, but too much of it can block the brain's ability to retrieve memory.

"So we can, in this case, predict if someone is going to develop Alzheimer's disease, because if someone between the ages of 50 and 70 has excess amyloid in their brain, they're highly likely to develop Alzheimer's disease," Nash says.

The good news, he says, is more than 90% of the study volunteers will have normal brain scans, with no extra amyloid protein. In Pete Mitchell's case, he never needed a follow up scan. Because, he learned, he did not inherit the APOe4 gene from either of this parents.

It was a relief.

"I feel that I'm a lot stronger and more focused because of it," Mitchell says. "I don't have to look back and go, 'Oh my gosh! Do I have it? Do I not have it?'"

Dr. Nash cautions there are other factors driving age-related memory loss, like a buildup of another protein in the brain, the tau protein.

"It used to not be important because we didn't have treatments," Nash says. "But, now, with the treatment we do here, we have treatments that take the amyloid out. We have treatments that take the tau out. We have treatments that block inflammation."​​​​​​​

So, Dr. Nash says if you're having trouble with memory loss, get tested as soon as possible. He's involved in a dozen different studies looking at investigational treatments for age-related memory loss.

While there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease, Dr. Nash says, they may be able to slow the disease down.

"The goal here right now is to make people less-worse," Nash says. " But, we're getting very close to the point where we'll have medicines that actually reverse the disease and reverse the memory loss. And that's my personal goal, that's my ultimate goal."