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Dementia gene elevates risk of severe COVID-19

A team of scientists led by the University of Exeter Medical School has identified a faulty gene linked to dementia that doubles the risk of developing a severe case of COVID-19.

Analyzing data from the UK Biobank, the researchers found that European ancestry participants who carry two faulty copies of the APOE gene have an elevated risk of dangerous COVID-19 infection.

Apolipoprotein E (APOE) is the most common gene associated with late-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

The Exeter study revealed that one in 36 people of European ancestry have two copies of the mutated APOE gene.

Carrying these gene mutations is known to increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s by up to 14 times, and also increases the risk of developing heart disease.

In the new study, the team linked the APOE faulty gene to double the risk of severe COVID-19, even among individuals who do not have Alzheimer’s or heart disease.

“This is an exciting result because we might now be able to pinpoint how this faulty gene causes vulnerability to COVID-19. This could lead to new ideas for treatments,” said study co-author Dr. Chia-Ling Kuo of the UConn School of Medicine.

“It’s also important because it shows again that increasing disease risks that appear inevitable with aging might actually be due to specific biological differences, which could help us understand why some people stay active to age 100 and beyond, while others become disabled and die in their sixties.”

The Exeter team had previously demonstrated that people with dementia are three times more likely to develop a serious case of COVID-19.

“Several studies have now shown that people with dementia are at high risk of developing severe COVID-19,” said lead author Professor David Melzer. 

“This study suggests that this high risk may not simply be due to the effects of dementia, advancing age or frailty, or exposure to the virus in care homes.”

“The effect could be partly due to this underlying genetic change, which puts them at risk for both COVID-19 and dementia.”

The study is published in the Journal of Gerontology, Medical Sciences.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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