Did you know that rheumatoid arthritis may be protecting us from getting Alzheimer’s?
Yep, it’s true. Or at least, it may be. Now, I’m a little late in discovering this news: The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease actually published the study that discovered this possibility back in January. According to a story in the Los Angeles Times about it, “A signaling protein called GM-CSF that is released when people have arthritis may stimulate the body to attack and remove amyloid deposits in the brain.”
Beta amyloid deposits (or plaques) are the hallmark characteristic of Alzheimer’s.
Of course, in real life, no one would want to get rheumatoid arthritis simply to avoid Alzheimer’s Disease later in life—at least, I don’t think they would. I surely wouldn’t. But what’s so great about this news is that if scientists can isolate this protein and confirm that it actually does do what they think it does, then they may be able to reproduce it synthetically and give it to people to help guard against the horrors of Alzheimer’s. They might also be able to figure out how the bodies of those of us who have RA go about producing this particular protein—and perhaps find a way to block its out-of-control inflammatory effect.
I love science and scientists, don’t you? I mean, look how far they’ve come in combating RA. When I was first diagnosed in the late 1980s, very few Disease Modifying Anti-Rheumatic Drugs (DMARDs) were available. There were gold salts, plaquenil and methotrexate; if there were others, I’ve not heard of them. At that time, scientists had only recently discovered that MTX, which is actually a cancer drug, could sometimes slow the progress of rheumatoid arthritis in some people. Plaquenil is actually an old anti-malarial drug; it had been in use for many years for RA, with mixed success. And gold, as an anti-rheumatic, is older still. It’s rarely used anymore and doesn’t work particularly well. I was given plaquenil and oral gold; neither had any effect on my severe RA at the time. I wasn’t offered methotrexate; I think that it was new enough in the late 80s that it hadn’t been added to the U.S. military medical system’s formulary yet (my medical care at the time was being provided by the U.S. Army).
Non-steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) were the go-to fix for RA back then. I took many different ones: ibuprofen, naproxen, Clinoril, Feldene, Indocin… all to absolutely no effect. Believe me, I was truly discouraged. And, even though my doctor told me that my RA was incurable, I couldn’t believe that none of these drugs did me any good. In fact, the only drugs that did help were narcotic painkillers—and I was allowed only limited doses of those. For many years I deeply resented that. I was more than prepared to become addicted to them as long as they’d take away that awful, awful pain.
But now there are many more DMARDs to choose from, some of them quite effective for many people. They’re the first line drugs to battle newly diagnosed RA now, chosen before NSAIDs. And today we have biologics, too. These drugs are miraculous, targeting specific enzymes and proteins in our bodies that cause inflammation. When they work (and unfortunately, like other drugs for RA, they don’t work for everyone) they work very well, reducing RA symptoms and pain dramatically.
I’m grateful that I’m living in a time when human knowledge is so much more advanced than it used to be. I’m grateful that should my RA get suddenly worse, outwitting the three DMARDs that are currently keeping it manageable, I have the option of taking a biologic medication.
All of these drugs can be risky. NSAIDs can cause stomach ulcers and damage the liver. DMARDs and biologics suppress the immune system. DMARDs may also cause life-threatening liver damage, and biologics may increase the taker’s chances of developing severe, life-threatening infections or even cancer.
Taking drugs like these can be scary. They’re risky. But if taking them can decrease my RA pain and disability and can slow the progression of the disease, then they’re worth the risk, in my opinion.
I’d never choose to have RA in order to avoid Alzheimer’s, and I’d surely not wish either affliction on anyone. But thank goodness for scientists, their curiosity and their perseverance. Perhaps someday they’ll be able to cure, or better yet, prevent Alzheimer’s and rheumatoid arthritis.
In the meantime, I’m glad that my RA may keep me from losing my mind. Whodathunkit?