Experts weigh in on Thor actor Chris Hemsworth’s decision to go public about his increased genetic risk of Alzheimer’s.
Hollywood superstar Chris Hemsworth has been making news across the world this past week, revealing that he is to take a break from acting after learning he has an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Speaking in an interview with Vanity Fair, Hemsworth admitted the news was “his greatest fear.”
The Thor actor has been promoting Limitless, a new longevity-focused TV series, in which he underwent a comprehensive set of genetic tests under the guidance of renowned longevity physician Dr Peter Attia. The results revealed he has two copies of the Alzheimer’s-linked APOE4 gene, making him up to 10 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
Longevity.Technology: While the world eagerly awaits the arrival of approved longevity therapeutics that will extend our healthy lifespan, the best options to achieve this today (improving our diet, exercise, sleep, etc) are largely preventive measures. We’ve written recently about national initiatives and clinical organisations that are putting early diagnosis and prevention front and centre.
By taking the admirable decision to go public with his diagnosis, Hemsworth is helping raise public awareness of prevention, adding weight to the argument that preventive healthcare must become a new normal. We spoke to some Alzheimer’s experts to get their perspective on Hemsworth’s situation and what actions he and others like him can consider.
Alzheimer’s affects more than 10% of people over the age of 65 and as Western populations age, the number of people with the disease are expected to grow rapidly over the coming years.
Dr Susan Mitchell, Head of Policy at Alzheimer’s Research UK, explains that our risk of developing diseases that cause dementia, such as Alzheimer’s, depends on several factors.
“Some of these we cannot control, like our genetics, but also others such as health and lifestyle risk factors that can be altered to reduce risk,” says Mitchell. “There are roughly one in fifty people who have two copies of the APOE4 gene that increases a person’s risk of Alzheimer’s. While there are genetic tests for this risk gene, these are not routinely used within the NHS as APOE status is just one component of Alzheimer’s risk. The presence of APOE4 does not mean someone will definitely develop Alzheimer’s disease.”
“We believe that it is possible to greatly reduce this number through three steps: early prediction, early detection and early intervention,” says Dr William Kapp, co-founder and CEO of preventive health clinic operator Fountain Life.
Early diagnosis is key
While some people view Alzheimer’s and dementia as an inevitable consequence of aging, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Early diagnosis and intervention potentially allow the development of dementia to be delayed or even prevented, and can deliver substantial cost savings to healthcare systems.
“Early prediction is exactly what Mr Hemsworth has done through his genetic testing and knowledge of his family history,” says Kapp. “Early detection can be done through AI-powered brain scans and biomarkers. Early intervention is unfortunately still difficult to implement. Today, Alzheimer’s is typically not diagnosed until the brain has degenerated to the point of dysfunction. However, by detecting abnormalities early, there are several ways to stop the condition before dementia sets in.”
National healthcare systems may be slow to change, but clinical organisations like Fountain Life are already providing preventive health services to patients.
“We founded Fountain Life because it is fundamental to focus on both prevention of diseases and early detection to mitigate them,” says Kapp. “This is a best-case scenario for Mr Hemsworth because, although he is one of the 2-3% of people who carry two copies of the APOE4 gene, we know genes are not destiny. Understanding that his risk is higher will allow him to stay consistent with aspects of his current lifestyle that are already mitigating his increased likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s as well as make specific lifestyle changes to areas that may increase his risk.”
Chris Hemsworth on Alzheimer’s risk
The show’s producers apparently gave Hemsworth the option of keeping the Alzheimer’s information out of the show, but the actor felt it was important to keep it in.
“I thought… if this is a motivator for people to take better care of themselves and also understand that there are steps you can take – then fantastic,” Hemsworth told Vanity Fair.
While Hemsworth isn’t retiring, his decision to take a break is to “simplify” and spend time with his family.
“If you look at Alzheimer’s prevention, the benefit of preventative steps is that it affects the rest of your life,” Hemsworth told Vanity Fair. “When you have preposition to cardiovascular heart disease, cancer, anything – it’s all about sleep management, stress management, nutrition, movement, fitness. It’s all kind of the same tools that need to be applied in a consistent way.”
Dr Maria Maccecchini is the founder of Annovis Bio, a biotech firm with a drug for Alzheimer’s that is ready for Phase 3 trials.
“Chris Hemsworth has the correct attitude and doesn’t want his genetic makeup to determine the course of his life,” she tells us. “He is right. While there are only very marginal drugs on the market today for Alzheimer’s disease, lifestyle is the largest contributor to keeping your body and your brain healthy. I admire him for his courage to come forward and tell the world about his two copies of APOE4 and his enhanced risk for the disease. We need strong and vocal people to improve awareness and understanding and to fight the disease.”
Reducing your Alzheimer’s risk
So, what can someone in Hemsworth’s position do to try and mitigate their risk of developing Alzheimer’s?
“There are things everyone, regardless of genetic risk, can do to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, and other diseases that cause dementia,” says Mitchell. “Looking after your brain in a similar way to your heart – such as not smoking, taking regular exercise and eating a healthy diet. Keeping socially connected and challenging your brain throughout life are also likely to help keep it healthy as you age.”
“Do not light the match to neuro-inflammation!” says Kapp. “This is the best way to reduce your risk. Once the match is lit, the challenge is to keep the fire under control. But how can we prevent the match from lighting? Through a healthy lifestyle, a strong microbiome, a normal body mass index, optimizing hormones, exercising, stress reduction, nutrition and, perhaps most importantly, sleep, during which your brain cleans itself of plaque and other neurotoxic debris.”