Ruth Itzhaki, PhD, a neurobiologist at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, decided to study this theory after she learned that a relatively rare infection called herpes encephalitis affected the same regions of the brain that Alzheimer’s does. Itzhaki went on to do more research on HSV-1. (As much as 90 percent of Americans age 50 and older have been exposed to it.)
After she studied postmortem brain samples, Itzhaki found that up to 75 percent of elderly people, including Alzheimer’s patients, had HSV-1 in their brains, while people who died of other causes at younger ages had no traces of the virus. Other studies have shown a similar link, including one by Columbia University Medical Center published this spring. It found a connection between blood levels of HSV-1 and cognitive decline in older adults. Itzhaki now wants to study whether taking an oral antiviral drug such as Valtrex prophylactically can slow or stop the progression of Alzheimer’s.
Though shocking, the findings don’t mean that if you get cold sores, you are doomed to develop Alzheimer’s. However, people who carry the virus and have other risk factors may be more prone to dementia. For example, those who have both HSV-1 and the APOE e4 gene, already linked to Alzheimer’s, are much more likely to develop the brain disease than those without either, Itzhaki’s research found.
How You Can Use the News
Since up to 90 percent of the population has been exposed to HSV-1 and only 33 percent of adults age 85 and older develop Alzheimer’s disease, it’s clear that the virus is just one of many factors that increases risk. Until more research is done, it’s best to reduce your Alzheimer’s risk through lifestyle choices such as maintaining a healthy body weight and exercising regularly. The more physically active you are, the less likely you are to develop Alzheimer’s, according to a 2012 study by Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
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