Alzheimer’s disease is an incredibly serious late-life aliment that can have a massive impact on an individual’s quality of life and self sufficiency. The good news is that treatments can dramatically limit the damage the disease causes, but they have to be administered early in its progression.

Detecting Alzheimer’s can be tricky, especially when symptoms are initially mild or non-specific. In a new study, researchers describe a new blood test that could potentially detect the disease even before symptoms become noticeable. Such a test could dramatically improve the chances of positive treatment results and help to delay neurological damage.

The test, which was developed by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine and the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, detects a kind of protein associated with damage to neurons.

The presence of the protein in an individual’s blood points to brain cell damage, and testing for it in the blood is much less invasive than detecting it in cerebrospinal fluid via a spinal tap. The researchers confirmed that the levels of the protein in blood can be an early indicator of Alzheimer’s, but it can also apply to other conditions.

“This is something that would be easy to incorporate into a screening test in a neurology clinic,” Brian Gordon, PhD, who worked on the study, said in a statement. “We validated it in people with Alzheimer’s disease because we know their brains undergo lots of neurodegeneration, but this marker isn’t specific for Alzheimer’s. High levels could be a sign of many different neurological diseases and injuries.”

To make a better case for the test being used for potential Alzheimer’s cases, the team studied over 400 patients and tracked their levels of the protein over the course of several years. What they found was that individuals who eventually developed Alzheimer’s showed gradually rising levels of the protein when compared to the more steady levels in healthy patients. Most notably, the elevated levels were detectable 16 years before symptoms developed, which is a huge head start for doctors forming a treatment plan.

The researchers suggest that a similar test could be commonplace within years, giving would-be Alzheimer’s patients a lead on fighting off the disease before it does serious damage.