Is the New Alzheimer’s Blood Test Too Much Information?

A new blood test can predict with 90% accuracy whether or not a person will develop Alzheimer’s disease in the next three years. Details can be found in the just published edition of Nature Medicine, where this test is being hailed as “a real step forward”. But is it? Do we really want to know that we will suffer from this terrible illness years before we actually become noticeably symptomatic, or is this a terrible case of TMI – too much information?

My guess is that this is one of those things about which we feel positive in general, but more cautious when it comes to our own lives, especially as nobody knows if having this information three years earlier will actually help the potentially afflicted or not. The hope is that it will – that treating before symptoms arise will make the treatment more effective. That is very promising, and why pretty much all people will welcome this news in general.

But until we know it’s true – that knowing you will become sick will actually help you to stave off the ravages of Alzheimer’s – would you want to be one of those in the know, or not? Do you generally approach life from the perspective that to be forewarned is to be forearmed? Or do you get panicked and depressed when new news comes at you?

Like most of us, I think, I find myself vacillating between those two postures, depending upon more variables than I can list here, and probably more than I am even aware of. That said, and despite a bit of horror at this news, I think that all of us should be able to embrace this new access to knowledge as a really good thing, even with the early onset of diagnosis. Here’s why:

Hopefully, early detection will actually translate into more effective treatment in the short term. It will certainly aid in developing future treatments for the 135 million people who will be suffering from Alzheimer’s by 2050.

Even if all that is wrong, this test affirms the importance of listening to our own bodies and trusting our own intuition and experience. It also reminds us that, as with so many things in life, just because something cannot be measured (yet), does not mean that it does not exist.

Many people who are ultimately diagnosed with Alzheimer’s report that they are “slipping” or “losing their edge”, long before their doctors can confirm anything. They are often told that it’s “just the normal aging process”, and turned away feeling like they are over-anxious, hyper-sensitive, or just plain wrong. Recent studies indicate that they are, in fact, often in the pre-measurable stages of disease. In other words, patients’ sense of themselves can be way ahead of the current medicine – perhaps until now, in this case, when this new test will let medicine catch up with our own intuitions.

So no, this is not too much information. It may not be enough, but it is a step in the right direction, and however painful the news may be, it will help us all to deal with it better. The knowledge that this test brings can help us all find a bit of healing, which is a good thing, even if we can’t yet find a cure.

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