British Study Claims Alzheimer’s May Be Infectious

British study suggests Alzheimer’s may be infectious. Questions still need answers but certain medical procedures may transmit the seeds of the disease. Plus, some researchers believe some common viruses and bacteria could increase dementia risk.

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British Study Claims Alzheimer’s  May Be Infectious
3 Min Read September 9th, 2015 Updated:May 18th, 2022

British scientists, in a study published in 2015, have found evidence that the biological seeds of Alzheimer's disease could be passed on through medical procedures - though specialists said the risk of transmission was largely theoretical.

The research found evidence that suggested one of the hallmark proteins of Alzheimer's - that could go on to develop into the brain disease - spread to a group of patients via a now banned form of hormone treatment.

"This was very surprising," said John Collinge, a University College London professor and director of the Prion Unit who led the studies 

The growth treatment, using human-derived hormones, is no longer used due to the risk of contamination. But Collinge said studies are now needed into whether other procedures, such as blood transfusions and the repeated use of surgical instruments, pose a risk. He noted that previous experiments on laboratory mice and monkeys have already shown that transmission of the Alzheimer's protein is theoretically possible.

We do need to ask that question. There is evidence from animal studies that it is not implausible.

John Collinge

Limit Concern

Experts asked to comment on Collinge's work said it was scientifically intriguing but should not cause undue concern.

Although a very interesting paper, I don't think we need to worry excessively.  

Simon Lovestone, a professor of Translational Neuroscience at Oxford University.

"This form of (human growth hormone) treatment stopped 20 years ago and there is no evidence from this paper or any other work I am aware of that any other form of treatment would result in exposure to amyloid," said Masud Husain, an Oxford neurology specialist. 

While this is a beautiful piece of investigative medicine, we have to keep the findings in context.

Masud Husain

Experts are saying these results do not provide sufficient evidence to believe Alzheimer's disease is a transmissible illness.

Creutzfeld Jacob Disease

In what external experts praised as a landmark study, Collinge and other specialists from the Medical Research Council's Prion Unit discovered the Alzheimer's protein in the brains of seven out of eight patients they studied who had died of Creutzfeld Jacob Disease (CJD), another brain disease.

The patients, aged 36 to 51, had contracted CJD from contaminated growth hormone given to treat growth problems, the researchers said, but autopsies also showed their brains had significant levels of the Alzheimer's protein amyloid-beta. That finding suggested people treated with human growth hormone in the past and currently well may be at risk not only of CJD but also of developing Alzheimer's seeded by an accidental medical transmission of amyloid protein, .

At a briefing in London, Collinge noted that while Alzheimer's is a common disease of the elderly, it is highly unusual to see amyloid deposits in the brains of relatively young people.

"You simply don't see that sort of pathology in this age group," he said.

Human-derived growth hormone has been banned since 1985 after doctors found CJD may spread in contaminated tissues.

Around 450 people worldwide have died of CJD transferred in this way, but patients are now treated with a synthetic hormone which avoids the risk.

Infections and Alzheimer's Link

There are infections that are thought to be linked to Alzheimer's, including oral herpes, pneumonia, and infection with spirochete bacteria. Some researchers believe some common viruses and bacteria could, over the long term, trigger the death of neural tissue. The death of neural tissue could cause a steady decline in memory. The types of viruses and bacteria that could be an issue are the kinds that give us cold sores and gum disease. If this is true, infections could be one of the leading causes of dementia.

At the moment, the leading dementia triggers are genetics, lifestyle, and aging. More people today have cognitive decline, but more people live to longer ages than generations before. 

Dementia Leading Reason for Long-Term Health Care

Alzheimer's, one of the biggest forms of dementia, is one of the leading reasons people require long-term health care services. The consequences on families and finances significantly impact lifestyle and legacy. 

Adult children often find themselves thrust into the role of being a caregiver, something they were never prepared for or trained for in the first place. These informal, unpaid caregivers must juggle many hats, a career, family responsibilities, including their children, and caregiving for an older parent or family member.

Professional long-term health care services are costly, and those costs are increasing nationwide. The LTC NEWS Cost of Care Calculator says nursing homes average over $100,000 a year. Luckily, most long=term health care is in-home care or assisted living, and those costs are more affordable but still expensive. 

Long-Term Care Insurance is comprehensive but cannot be purchased when someone needs care; it must be obtained when a person has relatively good health. Traditional health insurance and Medicare (including supplements) pay a minimum amount of time in a skilled nursing home. Medicaid will pay for long-term health care if the care recipient has little or no income and assets. Most people purchase LTC Insurance coverage in their 50s. 

More research is being done on Alzheimer's and dementia, but for the foreseeable future, we need to be prepared for declining health, mobility problems, and aging that cause the need for long-term health care.

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About the Author

An LTC News author focusing on long-term care and aging.

LTC News Contributor James Kelly

James Kelly

Contributor since August 21st, 2017

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