Alzheimer’s disease is a devastating, incurable illness affecting an estimated 5.4 million American adults. However, a new study suggests that a vaccine for the condition could become a reality in as little as five years, and may one day become as much of a fixture in the lives of our aging population as the common flu shot.

The study comes from researchers at Flinders University in Adelaide Australia in partnership with a ­research team at the Institute of Molecular Medicine, and University of California, Irvine. Although the exact pathology of Alzheimer’s is not clear, scientists know that two proteins in the brain, amyloid-beta (a-beta) and tau, play an important role. When these proteins die, they can build up into plaques and block connections between brain nerve cells. Autopsies have shown that these plaques are always present in the brains of deceased Alzheimer’s patients, although Medical News Today reported that it is not clear if there are other underlying processes also contributing to the disease. The vaccine would address this protein buildup.

"Essentially what we have designed is a vaccine that makes the immune system produce antibodies and those antibodies act like tow trucks so they come to your driveway, they latch on to the breakdown protein or car and they pull it out of the driveway,” said Flinders University medicine professor Nikolai Petrovsky, ABC News reported.

In animal studies, the antibodies work best to block a-beta before the subjects have developed the disease. Interestingly, the antibodies are effective at reversing the buildup of tau proteins once the disease has already progressed. At this moment, the vaccine is still not yet ready for human trials, but according to Petrovsky, “given the demand for a vaccine, if we show it is successful in the early stages we expect this will be pulled through and turned into product very, very quickly.”

According to Medical News Today, someone in the U.S. develops Alzheimer’s disease every 67 seconds. The condition is considered to be a form of dementia, and 1 in 3 seniors die with Alzheimer's or another dementia. The condition is degenerative, meaning that it progresses over time. Memory loss is a common early sign of Alzheimer’s disease, but challenges in problem solving, confusion with time, trouble writing and speaking, and difficulty completing tasks are also present in many in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

Although there is no clear way to prevent the disease, recent research has suggested that eating blueberries may help to lower your risk. The research, conducted by a team from The University of Cincinnati, found that anthocyanins, a type of flavonoid that acts as an antioxidant within the fruit that gives the berry its rich color, help to prevent age-related damage at the cellular level within the plants and may do the same in humans. The researchers gave seniors with signs of mild cognitive impairments blueberry-rich diets and found the group demonstrated improved memory and improved access to words and concepts compared to the control group.

In addition to preventing Alzheimer’s, early detection is also very important. Just this month, researchers at the University of Minnesota teamed up with CytoViva, an Alabama-based imaging technology company, to reveal their research on an eye test that could help to detect Alzheimer’s before the onset of physical symptoms.

At the moment, the problem with the experimental Alzheimer’s vaccine is not making sure the vaccine works, but ensuring that it is strong enough to actually make a difference in a patient’s health. However, if this hurdle is addressed then the vaccine could be used as a preventative treatment in as little as five years and be given to people at around 50 years of age when they are perfectly fine to stop them developing dementia, The Australian reported.

Source: Davtyan H, Zagorski K, Rajapaksha H, et al. Alzheimer’s Disease AdvaxCpG- Adjuvanted MultiTEP-Based Dual and Single Vaccines Induce High-Titer Antibodies Against Various Forms of Tau and Aβ Pathological Molecules. Nature’s Scientific Reports. 2016.