U.S. researchers say they are close to developing a blood test for Alzheimer's disease that would allow doctors to diagnose patients at the earliest, most treatable stage.

Early diagnosis could help patients make lifestyle changes that might retard the progression of the brain disease, researchers at the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford, N.J., say.

"There are significant benefits to early disease detection because we now know that many of the same conditions that lead to vascular disease are also significant risk factors for Alzheimer's," says lead study author Dr. Robert Nagele.

Early detection means steps can be taken to improve vascular health, such as healthy diets, exercise and management of weight and blood pressure issues to help hold off or at least slow disease progression, he explains.

The researchers report they have focused on autoantibodies as potential blood-based biomarkers that may accurately detect the onset of myriad diseases and give doctors an accurate idea of how far a disease has progressed.

Autoantibodies are proteins in the immune system that mistakenly attack the body's own healthy cells.

Every individual displays a unique and different antibody profile based on gender and age, but the disease present in a person's body can cause several identifiable changes that can reveal the specific condition, the researchers say.

The researchers have presented their findings at an American Osteopathic Association meeting in Orlando, Fla.

Studies have shown that changes in the brain begin years before the first symptoms of Alzheimer's begin to surface, so detecting Alzheimer's antibodies before symptoms begin to exhibit could let patients alter certain lifestyle habits that could be increasing risk, they say.

It could also allow doctors to begin treatment before the appearance of symptoms, they add.

"As osteopathic physicians, we constantly tell patients that a healthy lifestyle is the best medicine for preventing disease," says Rowan University professor of family medicine Jennifer Caudle.

Unfortunately, she says, many people ignore advice about exercise and nutrition until a health crisis demands their attention.

A blood test revealing approaching Alzheimer's — estimated to affect one in three American seniors, according to the Alzheimer's Association — would be a definite wakeup call, she suggests.

"I can't think of a single patient who wouldn't take steps to prevent the progression of Alzheimer's if they could directly affect their prognosis," she says.

The researchers say the blood test they're working on is also showing promise for detecting other conditions, including Parkinson's disease, breast cancer and multiple sclerosis.

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