Actor Chris Hemsworth, 39, recently discovered that he has a genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s. Here's a closer look at the gene in question.
Chris Hemsworth, the 39-year-old actor best known for his portrayal of Thor the God of Thunder (and his luscious, golden hair), has discovered he has a genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease while filming a new show for National Geographic. The show, called Limitless, is a docuseries exploring aging and the science of longevity.
Hemsworth underwent genetic tests for the show to see whether he carried any risk factors for age-related diseases. He discovered that he carried two copies of the APOE4 gene, which can lead to a three-to-twelve fold increase in Alzheimer’s risk.
“The show, which initially was an exploration of longevity and, of course, should be fun, became even more relevant and important for me,” Hemsworth told Vanity Fair. “It was a really good catalyst to dive into everything I needed to be doing.”
What is APOE4 anyways? Being Patient breaks down what the APOE4 gene means for Alzheimer’s risk — and what you should consider before getting tested yourself.
APOE4 as an influential genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s
While everyone carries an APOE gene, which are the instructions for building apolipoprotein — which grabs and carries cholesterol throughout the body. There are different versions of the APOE gene which alter the structure of apolipoprotein, some are actually protective against certain diseases.
We inherit one version of this gene from each parent — if that leaves you with two copies of the APOE4 gene, then it increases your risk of developing Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease. Your risk of developing Alzheimer’s in any year after age 65 is two percent. Carrying two copies of APOE4 boosts the risk from two percent up to 24 percent. Fortunately, only about two to three percent of the population have two copies of APOE4.
“The show, which initially was an exploration of
longevity and, of course, should be fun, became
even more relevant and important for me.”
–Chris Hemsworth on his Alzheimer’s gene discovery
It is also important to add that the vast majority of Alzheimer’s research thus far has looked at mostly white populations. In some groups like American Indians, researchers noted that APOE4 does not appear to increase the risk of developing the disease.
This means that carrying both of these genes won’t necessarily mean that you develop Alzheimer’s. As Hemsworth noted in his interview, this is “not a pre-deterministic gene, but it is a strong indication.” It has made him think more seriously about disease prevention, management and his own mortality.
“We like to avoid speaking about death in the hope that we’ll somehow avoid it,” Hemsworth said. “Then to all of a sudden be told some big indicators are actually pointing to this as the route which is going to happen, the reality of it sinks in.”
Should I get genetic testing for APOE4?
Deciding whether or not you should get genetically tested for APOE4 and other risk factors is a very personal decision. It also leads to the disclosure of genetic risk factors, confidential medical information, about your family members predispositions
For example, since Hemsworth publicly announced that he carries two copies of the APOE4 gene, it means his parents and his brothers are carrying one or two copies as well. Not everyone has a say in whether they want to know this medical information or even want it released publicly. Other activists have also flagged concerns about how DNA testing companies use and sell your data to other parties like law enforcement.
On the other hand, there are also benefits to knowing whether you carry this gene. It can make you more proactive about your health. While eight risk factors account for about one-third of Alzheimer’s cases, they aren’t always within our control. That is why it is important to work with a doctor or other medical professional, you can develop a plan to change some of the other risk factors in your life.
Even people who do develop Alzheimer’s, may still live a fulfilling and happy life post-diagnosis. Since her diagnosis, advocate Geri Taylor is one of many people living with Alzheimer’s disease who has been raising awareness and working to support other people with Alzheimer’s, in part through sharing how it has led her to live a fuller, more passionate life.
A bevy of new treatments and approaches to diagnosing and treating the disease are currently in the drug development pipeline. These innovations will make it easier to manage the symptoms of the disease and maybe even keep it at bay.