A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s brings discomfort, stress and worry. Too often, I have seen the fear in patients’ eyes when they are told the news and, in an instant, the peaceful old age they once imagined is taken away from them.
But it is also enormously difficult for his family. Roles suddenly change: beloved spouses become full-time caregivers, while adult children foresee a worry-filled future for a parent who might even forget their names.
How much scarier would it be if they thought they could “catch” Alzheimer’s from their loved one?
Caring for a patient with dementia is difficult enough. Add to that the extraordinary notion that they could be contagious, and the job undertaken so selflessly by thousands of husbands, wives and other family members across the UK, often elderly themselves, becomes a nightmare.
It conjures up a terrible vision of Alzheimer’s patients under permanent confinement, rejected and isolated even by their loved ones. And yet, the idea that this much-hated and feared disease could spread between people is exactly what the headlines seemed to suggest last week.
Alzheimer’s disease is a type of brain disorder that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior (File image)
Reports of research carried out at University College London, which showed that a small group of patients had “contracted” Alzheimer’s disease, caused alarm.
Understandably scared at the thought that they could catch it from their loved one, or even that they already had, several caregivers asked me what I knew about it.
What I told them is what I’ll tell you, and I’ll be clear (and hopefully reassuring) from the beginning. The cases analyzed in the study are terribly sad, but we can categorically say that it is not possible to “catch” Alzheimer’s disease by caring for someone who suffers from it.
So what did the study actually show? The research was carried out by neurologists at the UCL Institute of Prion Diseases and published in the prestigious journal Nature Medicine.
These were a handful of patients who had been administered human growth hormone many years ago, when it was extracted from the pituitary glands in the brains of people who had donated their bodies to medical science.
Its purpose was to help short children grow. Tragically, however, more than 20 years ago, scientists discovered that 80 of approximately 1,848 children who received the injections between 1959 and 1985 had developed a rare form of dementia known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). This is caused by a type of protein called a prion, the same protein that is involved in BSE (mad cow disease).
Dr. Max says that “it is not possible to ‘catch’ Alzheimer’s disease by caring for someone who has the condition” (File Image)
These proteins bind to brain proteins and cause them to change shape, causing brain cells to die. Sufferers develop progressive problems with memory, thinking, movement and speech.
Two decades ago, it became clear from studies that some of the brain tissue from cadavers that had been used to produce growth hormone had been infected with prions. These had been transferred to poor children who had been injected, leading them to develop CJD.
It was a terrible medical scandal in which doctors who had tried to help inadvertently harmed 80 young people whose lives were cut short.
But now it has gone down in the history books. We no longer use growth hormone extracted from corpses (it was banned in 1985) and instead use a synthetic form.
And now comes this new study describing five poor souls who received growth hormone from a cadaver but developed early-onset Alzheimer’s disease instead of CJD. This puzzled researchers because Alzheimer’s is not caused by prions.
Exactly what causes it is still hotly debated, but we know that two proteins are involved. One of them is called beta-amyloid, which forms plaques around brain cells, and the other is called tau, which forms tangles inside brain cells.
Incredibly, to try to understand what was happening, researchers managed to trace the original samples of growth hormone used on the five patients, as they were still stored at the Department of Health and Social Care.
When they analyzed them, they found that instead of being contaminated with prions, they contained beta-amyloid proteins. The suggestion is that these behaved like a prion and somehow caused more beta-amyloid to form, causing patients to develop Alzheimer’s.
Why have I gone into so much detail? Because I wanted to show how specific the circumstances were and therefore how impossible it is to “catch” Alzheimer’s in normal life today.
It’s a shame that so many people were stressed by the headlines, but the study itself could well help us understand more about Alzheimer’s, and anything that opens a window into its still-mysterious origins is valuable.
Dementia is a general term for any condition that affects memory and thinking, and Alzheimer’s is the most common form in the UK, responsible for six in ten cases. However, despite being so common and affecting so many people, we still don’t fully understand how it develops.
Far from heralding a dystopian future in which we will all avoid Alzheimer’s sufferers for fear of contracting the disease ourselves, this study could help scientists find a treatment.
If you have a loved one with this condition, be sure to visit and care for them. There is nothing to fear.
With King Charles’ recent surgery, prostate problems are in the news. They affect many men, but one study has shown that we could reduce our risk by more than a third if we improved fitness levels by just three per cent a year. Come on men, let’s get going! A little exercise can make a big difference.
King Charles was treated for an enlarged prostate at the London Clinic private hospital on Harley Street
What Kate’s doctors are thinking
The doctors and nurses who cared for the Princess of Wales while she was in hospital must breathe a sigh of relief that she is safe and sound at home.
You might think that having a VIP patient is exciting. Surely you have in your career made the great and good come to you for wise advice on matters related to their health?
The Princess of Wales spent two weeks recovering in hospital after undergoing abdominal surgery last month.
But in reality, it is not as fun and exciting as you imagine. It’s incredibly stressful. While I have never had a royal as a patient, I have had several famous and high-profile ones over the years. The level of scrutiny is intense. Your treatment plan can be analyzed and criticized by colleagues around the world.
Any mistake will be analyzed and may even end up on the front page of a newspaper.
Colleagues may feel jealous. What’s more, you can’t talk about the case with anyone, even in the vaguest terms.
I’m obviously glad Kate is well enough to have returned home and, I’m sure, so are her doctors.
More than 23 million adults in the UK still do not know how to perform CPR, the British Heart Foundation (BHF) revealed last week. CPR can literally save lives and is simple when you’re trained, but if you haven’t learned how to do it, you run the risk of watching someone die in front of you.
I have performed CPR many times on people in hospitals and in some public emergencies. Following basic rules means you can give someone the best chance of survival.
According to the BHF, more than 30,000 people suffer an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest in the UK every year, and fewer than one in ten survive. Performing CPR and using a defibrillator can more than double a person’s chances of survival. The BHF has simplified CPR to five basic steps:
- Search for an answer. Firmly shake the person’s shoulders and ask out loud if they are okay.
- Call 999. If the person is unconscious and not breathing, or not breathing normally, start CPR.
- If there is someone with you, ask them to find a defibrillator.
- Start chest compressions. With your palm in the center of your chest, press down gently and firmly at a rate of two per second. Try keeping up with the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive.
- Use a defibrillator as soon as you can. Follow their instructions carefully as you continue to give CPR.
I encourage everyone to visit bhf.org.uk for more information.