Hitting a Nerve

How would you handle predictions of Alzheimer’s disease?


We love to try and predict the future. Some of it is scientific, like checking the weather forecast to see what we’re in for. (Here in Phoenix, it’s always hot, hotter, or melting.)

On the other hand, some of it is just for entertainment, like checking a horoscope or seeing what a fortune cookie says.

Now, neurology is moving into the realm of prediction, and it’s a lot more serious than the weather or what’s in store for Sagittarius.

The breakthroughs in biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease are accelerating. Although still experimental, we’re getting pretty close to predicting the disease many years before it develops. At the same time, we aren’t nearly as close to a treatment that will have a meaningful impact on the course of the disease.

In 1993, the genetic marker for Huntington’s disease was identified, quickly leading to a blood test with high accuracy to know if you were – or were not – going to develop the fatal disorder down the road.

Some wanted to know and used the information to decide if they wanted to have families. Others, understandably fearful, decided not to and let their lives play out as they will. Sadly, either way we have nothing close to a cure for the disease.

Now, we come to Alzheimer’s disease, many times more common than Huntington’s. Close to predicting its coming and not really close to a cure.

What would you do?

In “Back to the Future,” Doc Brown said “no man should know too much about their own destiny” (though later changed his mind). But, for Doc Brown, a bulletproof vest was all he needed. In Alzheimer’s disease, it’s not that simple.

I’m sure some would see it as a way to have their affairs in order long in advance, to spare themselves and their loved ones the frantic scramble that often comes after a diagnosis. Others would be afraid to know what the future holds, with every misplaced set of keys or iPhone becoming a reason to panic.

Obviously, if we had a true cure for the disorder, the decision would be easy. Then, it becomes a preventive measure in the same category as mammograms and colonoscopies. Early detection saves lives.

Dr. Allan M. Block, a neurologist is Scottsdale, Ariz.

Dr. Allan M. Block

Right now, it’s a Pandora’s Box with unpredictable ethical and legal issues, not to mention the varying ways a positive result will change asymptomatic individuals and their families. And, of course, it still doesn’t predict the majority of life’s changes: A person can have a negative result, then leave my office and get hit by a bus.

What would you do? And how will you guide the patients who ask your opinion?

For better or worse, these questions are coming. All of us need to think about how we’ll handle them.

Dr. Block has a solo neurology private practice in Scottsdale, Ariz.

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