Organ Transplant, Longer Life and No Alzheimer’s?

by Nancy Wurtzel on June 2, 2016

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In a recent post about caregiving, I noted my sister, Barbara, is on the transplant list at the University of Minnesota, waiting for a double lung transplant.  Barbara has been battling a complicated lung disease for several decades, the result of working in a sick building years ago.  The building, full of mold and other dangerous toxins, was eventually deemed too contaminated to save and torn down.

While Barbara’s disease was manageable for a long time, three years ago she suffered several bouts of pneumonia causing her health to deteriorate significantly.  She’s now on oxygen full-time and physicians have given her only a few years to live without new lungs.

My sister and I have become mini-experts on lung transplantation — researching, reading, and asking countless questions.

We’ve learned organ transplantation a serious, complicated business.

Lung Transplant and Alzheimer’s

During this learning process, I came across a study conducted by the University of Texas Medical Brand at Galveston (UTMB)  involving organ transplant and Alzheimer’s disease.

At first glance, it seems the two have nothing in common.  The researchers, however, have uncovered an unlikely link: People who undergo organ transplant may also be protecting themselves against the dreaded disease.

The skeptic in me was, well, pretty skeptical.

However, the findings are legit and were published in the July 7, 2015 issue of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

memory loss-brain-cognitive-Alzheimer's-dementia-agingThe connection is the daily anti-rejection medications required post-transplant.  Not only do these meds suppress the bodies immune system, which would otherwise attack the new organ, but they also have certain properties that dramatically reduce the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease.

The link was stumbled upon by healthcare providers who noted a consistently lower percentage of Alzheimer’s in transplant recipients.

It seems health providers closely monitor patients post-transplant for  any signs of memory loss.  That’s because cognitive issues might impede a person from taking his or her anti-rejection medications at the correct time and at the correct dosage.

Failing to take the necessary medications can send an organ recipient into rejection within a matter of hours.

The UTMB team studied the data from the medical records of 2,644 organ transplant recipients who take calcineurin inhibitor-based medications for the rest of their lives.

Only eight patients showed evidence of dementia symptoms.  No, that’s not eight percent.  Eight patients.  The breakdown by age is as follows: two were younger than 65, five were aged 65-74 and just a single person was over age 75.

That’s astoundingly low when compared to the 2016 national figures from the Alzheimer’s Association, which reports that one in nine people (age 65 and older) has Alzheimer’s disease.  This number translates to 11 percent.

Lower Risk of Alzheimer’s After Organ Transplant

If you compare these figures to the general population, they are incredibly small numbers.

“These data clearly show that the prevalence of dementia and Alzheimer’s in our transplant patient group is significantly lower, in fact almost absent, when compared to national data from the general population,” said senior author Luca Cicalese, professor in the department of surgery.

Also from the study results: “Taken together, our findings from these people confirm the data obtained with animal models and support, for the first time in human subjects, our notion that calcineurin inhibition has a protective effect on the development and possible progression and even reversal of Alzheimer’s disease,” said senior author Giulio Taglialatela, Professor and Vice Chair for Research in the department of neurology and director of UTMB’s Mitchell Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases.

Wow.  More work is needed to find out why these meds are so brain beneficial.  Researchers are working on this now.

Since both of our parents had Alzheimer’s disease, as did several aunts and uncles, my two sisters and I are rightly concerned about our own cognitive futures.

It would be wonderful if Barbara could live a normal live without a lung transplant.  However, that’s not possible.  A transplant is her only option to prolong and improve the quality of her life.

The medications my sister will have to take for the rest of her life will have many side effects, most not good. However, there could also be a silver cognitive lining, and that is great news indeed.

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1 Galand June 7, 2016 at 8:54 pm

Interesting, I’m on a liver transplant list now. That is really great news for a lot of people. I’ve had relatives that had Alzheimer’s.
Thank you

2 Jude Rooney June 3, 2016 at 8:18 am

Thanks, Nancy! This is so interesting and so hopeful. I love when treatment for one thing leads to surprising results in another area. You write very well and I enjoy reading your articles.

3 Susan June 2, 2016 at 5:45 pm

Excellent post Nancy. Some surprising information is coming out in Alzheimer’s research, and I hope this is just the beginning. And terrific to know there is actually a benefit to those powerful anti-rejection drugs. A little silver lining…..

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