Alzheimer’s and God of War

by Robert Keith Wallace, PhD

When it comes to Alzheimer’s disease even the mighty Thor, God of War, must take precautions. Chris Hemsworth, the actor who starred as Thor, recently annnounced that he has two copies of the APOE-e4 gene What this means is that he is at a much higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease than someone without this gene. As a result, he has announced that he will be taking more time away from acting and spending it with his family.

Alzheimer’s is a serious enemy, if not deadly. It begins with mild memory loss and leads to a total inability to participate even in one-on-one conversations or carrying out normal daily activities. One in three seniors die with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. This is higher than the combined number of people who die from both breast and prostate cancer. Right now, more than 6 million of all ages have Alzheimer’s and that number is projected to increase to 12.7 million people for those 65 and older by 2050. The thing about Alzheimer’s is that whether you have the APOE-e4 gene or not, the risk increases the older you get. For those between the ages 65 to 74 approximately 27% of all seniors have Alzheimer’s, for those between the ages of 75 and older that number goes up to about 36%. Gender and race play a role. Approximately two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s are women, and older Black Americans are about twice as likely to have Alzheimer’s or other dementias as older Whites. This is also true of older Hispanics who are about one and one-half times as likely to have Alzheimer’s, or other forms of dementia, as older Whites.

How important are genetics? There is a lot that we still don’t know, but, 40 to 65% of all diagnosed with Alzheimer’s have been found to have the APOE-e4 gene.  Modern science has found two categories of genes that influence whether a person develops a disease. The first is called a “risk gene” and the second a “deterministic gene.” A deterministic gene directly causes a disease while a risk gene merely predicts its likelihood. In the case of Alzheimer’s, there are also some rare deterministic genes that have been found to cause the disorder in a few hundred families worldwide. Only about 1% of Alzheimer’s patients have this early-onset form, which usually occurs between the ages of 40 to 50. The other 99% who have Alzheimer’s have the late-onset form of the disease, which usually begins after the age of 65 or later. For these people the main risk gene is the APOE-e4. Chris Hemsworth has two of them, one from each parent. Does this mean that he will definitely get this debilitating disorder? No, it just means that he is at higher risk and since he has two copies, he may get the disease at a younger age. What many top experts explain is that our current estimates do not include the beneficial effects of adopting more positive lifestyle habits.

How many other people are at risk as indicated by the presence of these genes? As many as 20 to 30% of the people in America have one copy of APOE-e4.  There is a much smaller percentage, 2%, in the US who have two copies of APOE-e4.

Most of the theories of Alzheimer’s have focused on the abnormal accumulation of two main proteins in the brain, beta amyloid and tau protein. The amyloid proteins tend to be clumped together in plaques which hamper communication between neurons in the brain. Alzheimer’s patients also have neurofibrillary tangles of the tau protein within neurons, which also disrupts neural pathways. Other factors such as chronic inflammation and vascular disease are also important, but no one is sure which is the cause and which is the effect. Recent research suggests that the amyloid proteins may be debris from immune cell battles that occur as a result of a leaky blood brain barrier, that has allowed certain microorganisms and other unwanted material to enter the brain.

Are there any drugs that can cure Alzheimer’s? Billions of dollars have been spent looking for such drugs but so far nothing has been effective. The F.D.A. has approved Biogen’s Aduhelm, or aducanumab, even though there is little evidence of benefit. Another drug lecanemab, has been reported to have positive effects but there are serious concerns about its deleterious side-effects and even death in some patients.

Many integrative medicine practitioners argue that looking for a magic pill is not the right approach. Their advice to Chris Hemsworth would be to make positive changes in his lifestyle while he is still young, and this seems to be his plan.

Changes might include new lifestyle habits such as meditation, a healthier diet, regular exercise, and better sleep routines.

We don’t have to wait for Alzheimer’s to happen to us. We can take charge of our life and learn new positive health habits today, which can turn on genes that benefit us and turn off genes that might harm us. It is a matter of creating the right internal physiological environment internally, to enliven the inherent creative intelligence within our body. In other words, we can learn new biohacks for healthy longevity today.

Selected References

  1. Scheltens P, De Strooper B, Kivipelto M, Holstege H, Chételat G, Teunissen CE, Cummings J, van der Flier WM. Alzheimer’s disease. Lancet. 2021 Apr 24;397(10284):1577-1590. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(20)32205-4. Epub 2021 Mar 2. PMID: 33667416; PMCID: PMC8354300.