The March 21, 2007 edition of the New York Times featured an article called "Prevalence of Alzheimer's Rises 10% in 5 Years." It began: "More than five million Americans have Alzheimer's disease, a 10 percent increase from the last official tally five years ago, and a number expected to more than triple by 2050." Alzheimer's disease, it seems, now afflicts 13% of people 65 and over, and 42% of those past 85.
The piece also reported "the startling finding that 200,000 to 500,000 people younger than 65 have some form of early onset form of dementia, including a rare form of Alzheimer's disease that strikes people in their 30s and 40s." The Times adds: "Apart from early onset cases, the primary risk factor for Alzheimer's disease is age."
But, dear reader, there's a cow-shaped risk factor sitting in the corner-ignored by the newspaper of record (and essentially all major media outlets). And it's a very mad cow.
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) has earned the pithy nickname "mad cow disease" thanks to the invidious symptoms presented in affected cattle, i.e. staggering, tremors, involuntary muscle spasms, bewilderment, hypersensitivity to auditory and tactile stimuli, and other examples of seemingly "mad" behavior.
Like BSE, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) is also a transmissible, invariably fatal spongiform encephalopathy with a prolonged incubation period that leaves sponge-like holes in a victim's brain. CJD, however, is the human version and this includes a newly identified variant of CJD, linked to BSE in British cattle.
"In humans," says author and environmentalist, Peter Montague, "the BSE-like disease is called 'new variant Creutzfeld-Jacob disease,' or nvCJD for short. CJD has been recognized for a long time as a rare disease of the elderly—very similar to Alzheimer's disease—but nvCJD is different. It has somewhat different symptoms, a different pattern of disintegration in the brain, and it strikes young people, even teenagers. Between 1995 and early 1998, at least 23 people died of nvCJD in Britain and at least one in France, the oldest of them age 42 and the youngest 15." (Yet the Times is "startled" by the rise in dementia in younger and younger people.)
"CJD robs victims of lucidity, control and life over a period ranging from six months to three years from the onset of symptoms, which can take from 10 to 40 years to manifest," writes journalist Gabe Kirchheimer. According to Nobel Prize winner Stanley B. Prusiner, fatal neurodegenerative diseases of animals and humans (like BSE and CJD) are thought to be caused by infectious proteins called "prions." Perhaps what is most disquieting about this hypothesis is that, unlike viruses and bacteria, prions remain infectious even after being baked at 680 degrees F for on hour (enough to melt lead), bombarded with radiation, and/or soaked in formaldehyde, bleach, and boiling water.
"CJD is 100 percent fatal," adds Kirchheimer. "There is no treatment or cure. As no blood test for the living is available, CJD has been definitively diagnosed only through brain biopsy."
Studies cited by Kirchheimer indicate it is likely that "tens or even hundreds of thousands of people are dying right now of undiagnosed or misdiagnosed CJD." Government figures estimate approximately 200 to 300 cases of CJD have been diagnosed in the U.S. Before you take comfort in that modest figure, bear in mind the findings of John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton. The authors of Mad Cow USA learned that while some four million Americans (at the time) had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, autopsies revealed roughly 25% of alleged Alzheimer's deaths were caused instead by other forms of dementia. One percent of these misdiagnosed deaths have been ultimately attributed to CJD. If this trend is extrapolated and one percent of the now five million Americans with Alzheimer's actually have CJD (or nvCJD), the nationwide estimate rises dramatically from 200 to 50,000 cases.
"It would be rather straightforward to design and execute significant studies to answer the urgent questions of which dementia diseases people have, and in what numbers, but to my knowledge no one in the scientific, medical or public health communities are even proposing this," says Stauber. "Especially now that we have found mad cow disease in the U.S., along with mad deer, mad elk, and mad sheep disease, we should be launching ongoing studies nation-wide to aggressively search for cases of CJD in the human population. We should be testing our human population for CJD; CJD should be made a carefully reported disease nationwide."
How safe are Americans from being exposed to the human variant of mad cow disease? In France, a nation with only 5.7 million cows, 20,000 are tested each week with 153 found infected in the year 2000. Out of the nearly 40 million U.S. cattle slaughtered annually, only about 1000 are tested. You do the math.
Kirchheimer concludes: "The growing number of British victims of 'new variant' CJD, mostly young people in their prime who contracted the brain sickness from tainted meat, is a grim precursor to an uncertain future."
Mickey Z. can be found on the Web at http://www.mickeyz.net.