Can Alzheimer’s Be Spread From Person to Person?

“First Evidence that Alzheimer’s Proteins May Have Passed from Person to Person,” was the bold headline in a recent TIME magazine article, making it sound like you should put a bit more distance between you and your loved one with Alzheimer’s disease (AD). However, a more level-headed analysis of both the article and the study it referred to suggests that fear of contracting AD from others should not be a worry for most people.

What the Study Actually Found

In the referenced study, published in the journal Nature, scientists examined the brains of people who died of the deadly Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD)—a neurological disease that causes rapid degeneration of the brain. These people contracted the disease after receiving Human Growth Hormone that had been isolated from cadavers of people at risk for the disease, a practice that has been discontinued since the mid 80’s. In addition to signs of CJD, the scientists surprisingly found amyloids—protein pieces that are normally broken down by brain cells and can contribute to AD if they are not broken down. The presence of amyloids in these patients, particularly the Beta-Amyloid form, indicates that the patients’ brains were not breaking these down and therefore may, in principle, be susceptible to AD.

What We Do Know About How You Can Get Alzheimer’s
As worrying as this study may be, only 30,000 people worldwide have undergone this specific Human Growth Hormone treatment, and the rate of CJD in cadavers is very low. So, realistically, you don’t have to worry as much as that TIME headline suggests. What we do know from science is that the two leading causes for AD are age and genetics—two things that you can’t do much about. There are ways to reduce risk, however. Studies have shown that diets high in antioxidants like vitamins C and E as well as diets high in fatty fish may reduce AD risk. Regular exercise has also been shown to reduce the risk of AD. Thus, the best way to reduce your risk of AD is to live a healthy lifestyle consisting of healthy diets and regular exercise.

Marcel Davidse

Marcel Davidse was an intern with the Healthy Aging Project in the fall of 2016, and graduated in December 2016 from the Department of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder.