Alzheimer’s disease is a scourge that’s so common that most of us know at least one person who has had it, and often considerably more than one. It’s a tragedy and an ordeal both for the afflicted and for those who love them and care for them. I probably don’t have to describe the details of the terrible and progressive dementia it causes in many elderly people and a few not-so-elderly; you all almost certainly know quite a bit about it from bitter personal experience, or from reading articles or watching documentaries and movies.

That’s why this is very heartening news. There have been reports of effective treatments before that haven’t panned out, but this one seems a bit more promising:

Four years into the five-year clinical trial, it’s still too soon for Sutter Health doctors to confirm how well Johnson’s treatment [for Alzheimer’s], involving infusions of special antibodies, is working. So far, his brain scans have showed the disease has not progressed.

Johnson’s treatment is one of hundreds of clinical trials underway here and nationwide focused on Alzheimer’s and dementia. Amyloid, the sticky protein that attaches to brain cells and causes Alzheimer’s, is at the forefront of new therapies. Although none of the clinical therapies are yet FDA-approved, some are in the final phases with promising results, say researchers.

If so, it could mean the arrival of disease-disrupting treatments that patients, caregivers and researchers have been eagerly anticipating for decades.

“We’re entering a new era where we are very close to having the first proven disease-modifying therapy. It’s taken an awful lot of work for the last decade, but we think it’s slowing down the progression of the disease,” said Dr. John Olichney, neurology professor and director of clinical trials for the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center.

Remember when HIV or AIDS diagnoses seemed to be absolute death sentences? The disease cut a swath through the arts world in particular that was horrific (as a person involved in ballet, that’s what I remember best), and felled mostly the young. These days, HIV-AIDS is not exactly a nothing—it’s still very much a something, and a something to avoid and fear—but its automatic-death-sentence aspects have been attenuated through the discovery of effective although difficult treatment regimens.

A treatment for Alzheimer’s that actually arrests that disease would be a tremendous blessing. It would help patients, their families, and everyone who knows them, and it would also save on the costs of treating so many people who need such constant care.

Until I read the report, I hadn’t realized that PET scans had become so very good at diagnosing Alzheimer’s. I knew they were somewhat able to do so, but it appears they are now quite accurate and can even predict which people will ultimately get the disease as early as 10-15 years before they exhibit symptoms. Without a treatment, though, such an early diagnosis is a mixed blessing. I don’t think most people would want to know, the news is so devastating and the remedies presently so non-existent. But if a way to halt the disease’s progression is discovered, early detection is almost certain to become extremely important.

[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]