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Thursday, 14 February, 2002, 18:08 GMT
Blood clue to Alzheimer's risk
Blood test
High levels of a molecule found in blood may be a tell-tale sign of an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease.

Homocysteine has previously been linked to heart disease.

The good news is that we may have found a potential risk factor for Alzheimer's disease that is modifiable

Dr Neil Buckholtz
But scientists have now discovered that people who have high levels of the molecule are at twice the normal risk of Alzheimer's.

Not only does the finding suggest that a simple blood test could predict those at risk of the most common form of dementia, it may also mean that the risk can be reduced by adopting a healthy diet.

Adding the vitamins folic acid, B6 and B12 to a diet can lower homocysteine levels.

Modifiable risk

Researcher Dr Neil Buckholtz, of the US National Institute on Aging, said: "The good news is that we may have found a potential risk factor for Alzheimer's disease that is modifiable.

"We don't know yet whether reducing homocysteine levels will reduce dementia risk, but this is something that can and will be tested in clinical trials."

A team from Boston and Tufts Universities in Massachusetts examined data on 1,092 people taking part in long-term health study.

In total, 111 had developed Alzheimer's through December 2000.

Those who had elevated homocysteine were twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's and the risk increased the higher their levels were.

The risk was independent of other factors associated with Alzheimer's such as age and the presence of the APOE-4 gene variant, which has been linked to the condition.

Diet studies

Future studies will look to see if eating a diet rich in vegetables and whole grains, which can reduce homocysteine levels, reduces the risk of Alzheimer's.

Such a diet already is known to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, some cancers and stroke.

Researcher Dr Philip Wolf said: "Although there is no evidence that actually reducing homocysteine levels will prevent Alzheimer's disease or cardiovascular disease, a healthy diet low in fat and rich in nutrients is always a good idea."

Homocysteine is an amino acid and is not in itself believed to be harmful.

Doctors say it may be associated with the breakdown of nutrients in the body.

The research is published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

See also:

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