Nearly 6 million Americans currently have Alzheimer’s disease—a number that’s projected to rise to nearly 13 million by 2050. While there’s no official test to determine your risk for Alzheimer’s, certain tools are nevertheless available.
Genetic testing is one method used by Chris Hemsworth, the 39-year-old Australian actor known for his role as Thor in the recent Marvel movies. Through genetic testing, Hemsworth found that his DNA includes two copies of the APOE4 gene, a gene typically associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
Hemsworth’s experience can hopefully inspire other people, including those in younger generations, to take action to determine their own risk.
“If this is a motivator for people to take better care of themselves and also understand that there are steps you can take—then fantastic,” Hemsworth told Vanity Fair.
One of those steps is a new genetic test called the Alzheimer’s Risk Test, which can be taken at home and only requires a few drops of saliva. Just like you would swab your cheeks or nostrils for a few seconds to test for COVID-19, the Alzheimer’s Risk Test uses a similar method to assess your future risk of cognitive decline due to Alzheimer’s.
How does the Alzheimer’s Risk Test work?
Once a patient receives the test from their health care provider, they will collect samples of their saliva and then submit the samples to a laboratory in New Jersey.
The sample is then analyzed for more than 100,000 different genes in your DNA – including the APOE4 gene – associated with elevated or reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
“It looks at thousands of genes, not just the APOE4 gene that encodes one’s risk for Alzheimer’s,” said Jeffrey Gelblum, MD, a neurologist of First Choice Neurology who already uses the test. “It’s a very sophisticated and noninvasive test that gives a lot more information.”
Once the analysis is complete, a score called genoSCORE will be generated, which is then sent back to your physician. The genoSCORE can fall anywhere between zero and one and is meant to determine your risk of getting Alzheimer’s.
“Cause for concern usually arises when you get a score level of 0.6,” Gelblum said. “That means more likely than not there are genetic factors at hand that could significantly predispose you to Alzheimer’s.”
Based on the results you receive, you can speak with your health care provider about what to do next regarding prevention and intervention measures or lifestyle changes to delay the onset of disease symptoms and cognitive decline. This includes modifications to your diet or exercise that can reduce metabolic risk factors such as blood pressure, diabetes and cardiovascular disease that “amplify Alzheimer’s disease and can make dementia worse.”
“We can put patients on the MIND diet and on a good exercise regimen, such as briskly walking for 30 minutes every day,” Gelblum said. “There are all sorts of things that we can do and simple measures we can take with this genoSCORE.”
He added the test is different from other traditional testing methods (such as the 23andMe Health test kit) because those tests only tell you whether you carry copies of the APOE4 gene and do not identify other genes like APOE2 or APOE3 that may impact Alzheimer’s risk.
“A large percentage of individuals who develop Alzheimer’s don’t have an APOE4 positive gene, and the APOE4 gene can be present in a large portion of the population who aren’t going to get Alzheimer’s,” Gelblum said. “In certain respects, other tests are not as specific as we would like and are not really adequate to assess your risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.”
Where are the tests being used?
The test is currently being used in First Choice Neurology (FCN) networks, which covers more than 41 facilities in six Florida counties and services at 35 major hospitals, Richard Pither, CEO of Cytox, said in a statement. The test has also been used across Europe since 2021.
“Our genoSCORE technology, which powers the Sampled Alzheimer’s Risk Test, enables physicians to make immediate decisions about their patients’ risk of cognitive decline due to Alzheimer’s disease,” Pither said. “As such, we are delighted to bring the test to the FCN network of practitioners to support its community across Florida and beyond.”
He added that individual clinics and providers in Florida can provide telemedicine remote consultations to out-of-state patients who are interested in taking the test.
How can I get a test?
Anyone over age 18 who has cognitive concerns or a family history of Alzheimer’s can take the test with a physician’s prescription. In addition, because the test can be taken at home, it can be useful for patients who are self-isolating due to COVID-19 or for those who are not easily able to attend a health care setting.
“It requires someone who is concerned and that can be anyone from a caregiver to a family member to a cousin,” Gelblum said. “The whole idea is to capture these genoSCORE data before the problems take hold.”
One main drawback of the saliva test, however, is the price: The test is currently not covered by national health care systems or insurance providers, which means patients will have to pay $599 for the test.
Experts also say patients should interpret the results with some caution. Genetic testing that indicates you are at high risk for Alzheimer’s doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to get the disease, Stefanie Wardlow, senior program manager and research champion for the Alzheimer’s Association, told NNY360.
She added patients can consider other methods, such as a PET scan, CT scan and spinal tap or blood test, to determine whether they have amyloid plaques or tau tangles in the brain, which can be indications of the disease.
“Those are true indicators you could have the disease later in life,” she said.