December 02, 2022
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 is at a higher-than-average risk for Alzheimer’s disease. While filming Limitless, a new series from National Geographic, the Aussie actor revealed that he carries two copies of the APOE4 gene variant.
A-P-O-E, what now?
The APOE gene makes the protein apolipoprotein E (Apo E), which helps carry cholesterol through the bloodstream. Nearly 30 years ago, scientists learned that APOE influences a person’s chances of developing Alzheimer’s and heart disease.
Chris Hemsworth portrays the character Thor in the Marvel franchise
Everyone carries this gene, but there are a few variants. Let’s break down the risk factors for each of the three common variations of the APOE gene: E2, E3 and E4.
If you have APOE2 — the least common — it reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s. APOE3, the most common genetic variant, doesn’t seem to influence Alzheimer’s risk much and is generally considered neutral. Then there is APOE4, the type that Hemsworth has.
Why could this gene cause Thor to retire from acting?
About 1 in 4 people in the general population have an APOE4 gene variant. One copy of the APOE4 gene makes someone two to three times more likely to get Alzheimer’s disease than the general population. About 2% to 3% of the population, like Hemsworth, carry two copies of the variant, making them up to eight to 10 times more likely to get Alzheimer’s. Thor is also at a 45% increased risk of heart disease.
How can people with the APOE4 variant safeguard their health?
By focusing on his health, Hemsworth may be able to control other environmental risk factors known to cause diseases, such as high blood pressure, smoking, past head trauma, sleep disorder and other lifestyle factors. The general takeaway from Emily Dwosh, a genetic counsellor with Vancouver Coastal Health who specializes in this area, is that what is good for your heart is good for a healthy aging brain.
Here’s how to find out if you’re at risk — and what to do if you are
While there are several tests available for Alzheimer’s disease, she cautions against testing for the APOE genetic variant. Current guidelines suggest that it can’t automatically determine who will or will not develop Alzheimer’s disease. It just increases your risk.
Dwosh encourages anyone like Hemsworth to chat about their family and medical history with their doctor or a genetic counsellor through the Canadian Association of Genetic Counsellors (CAGC). They can help you determine if other genetic tests might be appropriate.