Many Alzheimer's disease experts believe that early detection, in people as young as age 40, can help them better design a treatment to fight the devastating effects of the disease.
On The Saturday Early Show, Dr. Mallika Marshall from CBS station WBZ-TV in Boston, presented new information about research on a test that determines your "brain age."
Allen Gonzalez is one of those who is benefitting from the test. Though it may not have been noticeable to his family and friends, but at age 54 , Gonzalez realized he was forgetting things.
"In my business, I have to have a sharp memory," he said. "I have to be on top of things."
So, the small business owner from New York State went to see a neurologist to have his memory tested. Gonzalez was told he had the beginning stages of Alzheimer's disease.
His diagnosis at a relatively young age should come as no surprise, say experts. Alzheimer's researchers believe the onset of the disease starts decades before a diagnosis.
"We know from about age 40, many individuals are losing brain quickness or speed and they are actually beginning to progress towards Alzheimer's," Neurologist Dr. Eric Braverman said.
Statistics show half the population will develop some degree of Alzheimer's disease before the age of 80.
Now there may be a way of detecting the disease very early on.
In a recently published study of 1,500 patients, Braverman found that a P-300 electrical brain test can detect the signs of slowdown and memory loss way before standard memory tests.
"This test identifies by the electrical speed how much longer you got," he explained.
Or, in other words, what the brain's age is.
In his first visit to the doctor's office, Gonzalez's brain age was estimated at 68. Now after undergoing therapy, including mental exercises and a change in diet, it's at 32. That's quite an improvement for a man who is 57 years old.
Braverman believes that brain health will become the new focus in medicine and the electrical brain test will eventually become standard for people over age 50, especially those experiencing slight memory loss.
Marshall says the P-300 test is widely available and more doctors will be using it as they discover its usefulness.
Those interested having the test done should contact a neurologist in their area. Marshall says the good thing about the test is it can be done in about 15 minutes. The doctor may have to take a standard memory test in conjunction with the P-300.
Once it has been determined that a person may have early stage Alzheimer's, Marshall recommends keeping the mind active and eating well. A study called the "Nun Study" confirms that doing those two things help battle Alzheimer's disease.
Researchers studied a group of nuns and measured the effects of aging on them. They found that the nuns who were constantly learning new things, playing mind stimulating games such as crossword puzzles, and eating a diet abundant in folic acids and omega-3 fatty acids were less likely to have the symptoms of Alzheimer's compared to their less active counterparts.
Marshall says the drug Aricept is a prescription available to treat Alzheimer's disease. It is prescribed to people with mild to moderate Alzheimer's. Patients taking the drug have been shown to to maintain the ability to perform everyday tasks longer than people not taking the drug.
And now a new drug, Memantine, is waiting for approval by the Food and Drug Administration. It has shown promise in treating people with a more advanced form of the Alzheimer's.
Marshall warns, however, none of these drugs stops Alzheimer's disease absolutely. It just delays the symptoms from getting worse.
Copyright 2003 CBS. All rights reserved.