Predicting Alzheimer's: Biological Age Overrides Chronological Age

Increasingly, Alzheimer’s specialists and researchers stress the importance of early detection. In fact, most drugs now considered as possible methods for holding off Alzheimer’s symptoms seem to be dependent on starting the drug early – as much as a decade earlier than symptoms appear.

The question that travels hand in hand with these studies is who should start these drugs if they do prove to be effective? It’s not prudent to simply give the drugs to the whole aging population.

We may soon have an answer to that question. A new study that shows differences in biological aging vs. chronological aging could help us find a way to differentiate between those for whom early treatment should be considered and those who aren’t likely to require the drugs.

A research tem at King's College, London (UK), led by James Timmons, professor of precision medicine, recently announced the development of a gene signature that may eventually help change the way the health and age of individuals are assessed. This is particularly meaningful for diseases such as Alzheimer’s that start long before symptoms appear. The study has been published in the journal Genome Biology.

The team focused on finding a molecular profile that could predict a number of future conditions by creating a "healthy age gene score." Blood samples were used for this study because molecules in blood cells reflect much of what is going on in the body.

While studying the blood samples, the researchers found what was determined to be a significant discrepancy between the gene score, the chronological age and the actual health condition of the study participant.

They also found that people with a high healthy gene score held that score stesdily over the studied period of 12 years. These volunteers also presented superior cognitive and renal function during that time.

The study subjects who had Alzheimer's reliably showed a lower healthy age gene score than people without Alzheimer’s, which would indicate a link between Alzheimer's and the gene signature score.

Will this knowledge change your life?

What if you were tested and showed a healthy gene score? Or a low one? Why does that matter now? Since Alzheimer's remains incurable, does this affect us?

I believe it does in a big way. Testing early for a person’s gene signature could help narrow the field of people who might benefit from drugs that are currently thought to be helpful in staving off symptoms. These drugs only seem to be effective when they are started early in the process – before Alzheimer’s symptoms appear.

Solanezumab is such drug that is being tested by the National Institutes of Health. The NIH wants to find out if solanezumab can slow the progression of memory problems associated with amyloid, a protein that forms plaques in the brains of people with Alzheimer disease. For this, they need volunteers who have normal thinking and memory function but may be at risk for developing Alzheimer's.

Other drugs are also being studied from the same perspective. For these drugs to work, people must be tested for potential Alzheimer’s quite young. If this study about biological age vs. chronological age holds true after more work, a biological age test could narrow the field for testing for a number of diseases, Alzheimer's being one of the most vital.

It also can explain why we all age so differently. Some people age well and others don’t. Is this discrepancy mostly genetic or mostly lifestyle related? Much more knowledge is needed, though likely aging involves a combination of many elements.

Meanwhile, what you and I can do is volunteer for one of these studies. Healthy people are needed as desperately as people in different stages of Alzheimer’s. The NIH has many studies available. By choosing your state on this NIH map, you may find one that works for you.

Carol Bradley Bursack
Meet Our Writer
Carol Bradley Bursack

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. This experience provided her with her foundation upon which she built her reputation as a columnist, author, blogger, and consultant. Carol is as passionate about supporting caregivers work through the diverse challenges in their often confusing role as she is about preserving the dignity of the person needing care. Find out much more about Carol at