Last week, Gentle Shepherd Hospice sponsored and attended the annual Central and Southwest Virginia Alzheimer’s Association conference in Roanoke.

We learned some alarming statistics:

  • Currently, there are 5.8 million Americans living with dementia.
  • One in three seniors dies from Alzheimer’s or dementia, more than breast and prostate cancer combined.
  • Alzheimer’s is the 6th leading cause of death in the U.S.
  • Experts warn that, at this rate, we may be facing a public health crisis.

Research on new strategies for earlier diagnosis is among the most active areas in research funded by the Alzheimer’s Association, which has spurred significant advances and steady progress in the prevention and treatment of the disease.

“The last five to six years have been an exciting time in research as we gained momentum that we’ve never had before and we continue to pick up steam,” said Rebecca Edlemayer, Ph.D. , Director of Scientific Engagement, who leads efforts to accelerate the scientific agenda of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Here’s a recap of the latest research findings on earlier detection shared by Dr. Edlemayer at the conference:


Researchers believe that biomarkers (short for “biological markers”) offer one of the most promising paths to discover a low-cost and non-invasive way to detect Alzheimer’s in the early stages.

A biomarker is something that can be measured to accurately and reliably indicate the presence of disease, like fasting blood glucose (blood sugar) for detecting diabetes. Clinical research and trials are being conducted for several potential biomarkers for Alzheimer’s:  

  • Brain imaging is one of the most promising areas of research focused on early detection of Alzheimer’s disease. It provides information about the structure of the brain, how well cells in various regions are working and it can detect cellular or chemical changes in the brain.
  • Cerebral Spinal Fluid (CSF) research suggests that Alzheimer’s disease in early stages may cause changes in CSF levels of two proteins that form abnormal brain deposits strongly linked to the disease.
  • Blood and urine tests may indicate whether Alzheimer’s disease causes consistent, measurable changes in urine or blood levels of certain proteins or other biomarkers before symptoms appear. Scientists are also exploring whether early Alzheimer’s leads to detectable changes elsewhere in the body, such as the lens of the eye.

Genetic Risk Profiling

Scientists have identified three genes with rare variations that cause Alzheimer’s and several genes that increase risk. As more effective treatments are developed, genetic profiling may become a valuable risk assessment tool for wider use.

Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)

Individuals with MCI have a problem with memory or another mental function serious enough to be noticeable to themselves and those close to them, and to show up on mental status testing. Research has shown that MCI may indicate a significantly increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease within a few years, offering another potential path to earlier diagnosis.

The Alzheimer’s Association research community is more optimistic than ever about progress in the Alzheimer’s and dementia field. To learn more, visit