Dementia: Doctor outlines changes to help prevent disease
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The researchers from the University College London (UCL) found that the variants of the gene OAS1 raised the baseline risk of Alzheimer’s by up to 22 percent, while also raising the chance of needing intensive care for coronavirus by up to 20 percent. It may explain why coronavirus was so deadly in care homes. Dementia is the main pre-existing health condition associated with coronavirus deaths.
Near the start of the virus’ outbreak last spring, it played a role in one in four deaths.
Experts first believed this was because people with dementia are older, less able to adhere to social distancing and mask-wearing, and at risk of higher exposure in care homes.
But this research suggests that underlying genetics may also have played a role too.
The responsible gene is linked to the immune system and determines how many pro-inflammatory proteins are released in the body.
Lead author Dr Dervis Salih, of the UK Dementia Research Institute at UCL, said: “While Alzheimer’s is primarily characterised by a harmful build-up of amyloid protein and tangles in the brain, there is also extensive inflammation in the brain that highlights the importance of the immune system in Alzheimer’s.
“We have found that some of the same immune system changes can occur in both Alzheimer’s disease and Covid-19.
“In patients with severe Covid-19 infection, there can also be inflammatory changes in the brain. Here we have identified a gene that can contribute to an exaggerated immune response to increase risks of both Alzheimer’s and COVID-19.”
And the new Covid variant reportedly has an even bigger impact on Alzheimer’s risk than several known risk genes.
For people aged 85 and over, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s is around 30 percent.
The gene increases the risk to between a 33 and 36 percent chance.
Testing for the gene and its variants could show who was at greater risk from Covid, the researchers said.
Doctoral student Naciye Magusali, of UCL, said: “Our findings suggest that some people may have increased susceptibility to both Alzheimer’s disease and severe Covid-19, irrespective of their age, as some of our immune cells appear to engage a common molecular mechanism in both diseases.”
Dr Rosa Sancho, head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, added: “Fairly early in the pandemic, people with dementia emerged as a group at particular risk of severe Covid-19 infection.
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“While there are likely to be several reasons for this, the study raises the possibility of a shared genetic risk factor playing a role.”
Professor Jonathan Schott, from UCL, added: “While some of this excessive mortality may relate to people with dementia being overrepresented in care homes which were particularly hard hit by the pandemic, or due to the general increased vulnerability to infections, there have been questions as to whether there are common factors that might increase susceptibility both to developing dementia and to dying from Covid-19.
“The identification of a genetic risk factor and elucidation of inflammatory pathways through which it may increase risk has important implications for our understanding of both diseases, with potential implications for novel treatments.”
Around 850,000 people in the UK have dementia, with one in six aged over 80.
There is no cure, but early diagnosis helps better control the symptoms.
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