New research has revealed that it is possible to detect if a person will have Alzheimer’s disease as early as 16 years before it happens. In a study published on Jan. 21 in the journal Nature Medicine, scientists found that early signs can be detected by observing changes in the protein content in one’s blood.

According to German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases professor Mathias Jucker, who led the team of researchers, measuring any rise in protein levels in the blood could mean that Alzheimer’s disease is imminent, particularly in the amount of neurofilament light chain (NfL). NfL is closely linked to the health of nerve cells in the brain, which means that if there are many of them found in the blood, then the level of brain damage is high.

While there remains no direct treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, being able to use blood tests to find out one’s propensity to develop the condition is crucial to ongoing research. As of this writing, there are no conclusive tests that would say if a person will have it eventually or not. Jucker noted that the disease is not acute and actually starts the process of deterioration at least 10 or even 20 years before the symptoms are apparent. Being able to detect it through blood testing will allow scientists to test new methods of treatment before the symptoms surface.

blood test
Scientists found that early signs can be detected by observing changes in the protein content in one’s blood. Pictured: A patient with diabetes monitors his blood glucose with a glucometer at a public hospital in Managua. Getty Images/Elmer Martinez

Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most common illnesses among the elderly worldwide, yet it is one with still so many unknowns. In the UK alone, there 850,000 people who have been diagnosed with dementia, CNN reported, citing figures from the Alzheimer’s Society in the U.K. In the United States, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed some five million Americans who are living with the condition.

Jucker and his team’s findings are a lot similar to a 2014 research that showed Alzheimer’s disease can be predicted before the symptoms become apparent by looking at 10 types of lipids in the blood. Its results showed that participants carried a faulty gene which made them more likely to develop dementia later on. Still, it is recommended that blood testing should be done, along with other memory tests and brain scans, to rule out other possible problems and obtain more conclusive results.