Alzheimer’s Brought to New World by Conquistadors, Study Finds

As if the native peoples of Latin America didn’t suffer enough at the hands of the Spanish: a study from UC Santa Barbara concludes that conquistadors likely brought Alzheimer’s disease to what is now Colombia in the early 1600s.

As reported in New Scientist on November 19, 2015, researchers have long puzzled over the extraordinarily high incidence of early-onset Alzheimer’s in Yarumal, a town in the Colombian state of Antioquia. About 5,000 people in the immediate region carry a gene mutation for the disease, half of them receiving a diagnosis as early as age 45. Reporter Rowan Hooper writes that:

Locals call the disease La Bobera, “the foolishness”, and the village bears uncanny parallels with the fictional Macondo in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, where people suffer memory disorders and hallucinations. But while Yarumal’s “curse” is well known, no one knew how the mutation first appeared.

However, that mystery was unlocked in 2015 by researchers from UCSB and the University of Antioquia. Scientists collected blood samples from 102 people in Antioquia and sequenced their genomes. The results showed that roughly three-quarters of the people had a specific mutation for early-onset Alzheimer’s — E280A — which came from a common ancestor about 375 years ago, right when the Spanish invaded. According to New Scientist:

“Putting the genetic data and the historical records together, the assumption that the mutation was introduced by one Spanish conquistador is very likely,” says Rita Guerreiro, a geneticist at University College London. “I think it is fair to conclude from this study that the history of Yarumal and the history of E280A are one and the same.”

The article goes on to describe the agonizing decision that the researchers made not to tell their test subjects the results of the analysis. It makes for provocative reading.

If the scientists’ supposition is true, then it is indeed a tragedy: The actions of a single conquistador doomed generations to suffer an especially severe version of an already painful disease. As described in the New York Times, the victims in Yarumal are prone to violence and lose the power to live indepently early in their lives. .

When I brought my father to Peru to care for him there, I knew little about Alzheimer’s and dementia in South America. During his year and a half in Lima, I met a number of gerontologists, neurologists and professional caregivers, and I began to get a sense of how prevalent the disease is in the metropolitan area.

This news from New Scientist gives a historical focus to Alzheimer’s in the New World.

I wonder: Would we have had Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia in Latin America today if the native people had defeated the conquistadors?


In Which I Bitch about My Dad’s Hospital Stay: Real Life Adventure #5

Spoiler alert: If you want to preserve the illusion that hospital care for the elderly is efficient, cost-effective and caring, read no future.

"Diagnosis of a UTI typically begins with urine sample." Or so says a medical website that obviously wasn't consulted by my father's geriatric doctor or his hospital.
“Diagnosis of a UTI typically begins with urine sample.” Or so says a medical website that obviously wasn’t consulted by my father’s geriatric doctor or his hospital.


My father spent more than a week in the hospital after his collapse in January 2011. He received physical therapy to help him walk again. He received antibiotics. The nurses were caring and on the ball. But what the heck was wrong with him?

I never got any real answers.

By the time I arrived in Gainesville, my father had been on antibiotics for two days. I wanted to know what the infection was. After several days of pestering, one of the nurses confessed: They hadn’t taken a urine sample for testing before they started the antibiotics, so there was no way of knowing what kind of infection he had. They presumed he had a urinary tract infection. Since antibiotics are the necessary treatment, they had started him on them right away.

I was stunned. “Presumed”? Continue Reading

Lesson #1: Hoarding as a Sign of Dementia


It started around the time my mother died, in 2004 or 2005. My elderly father began eating out more–Boston Market, Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Chinese food–and he’d bring home the condiments packets and store them in a drawer in the kitchen.

Ketchup packets. Mustard packets. Soy sauce. Duck sauce.

Soon they filled several drawers. I’d find them crammed in the fridge, in the cutlery drawer.

It became a joke with me and my husband when we’d come over to see my father — the neverending packets. We’d go to get a drink from the fridge, and they’d spill out of the top cubby where you’re supposed to keep eggs.

“Hey, Dad,” I joked, “Don’t you think you have enough ketchup packets?”

“Oh, Barb, there’s no sense throwing out good food,” he’d say, peevishly.

This went on for years. I just thought it was a product of his being a child of the Great Depression.

It must have in 2008 or so when I noticed that he wasn’t just hoarding ketchups. Continue Reading

Why Didn’t I See It Sooner? Real Life Adventure #4

Looking back on it, I should have known much earlier – way before his collapse or the discovery of the condom – that my father was not right in the head, that his problem was much more than an imaginary impacted colon. His digestive plumbing worked great, it always had. His mental state – well, that was another matter. He’d always been spacy, had held himself aloof from people, was known for uttering non sequiturs. But I should have known that his mental state was slipping. As recently as December, he’d repeated himself multiple times at Christmas dinner with friends of mine. That should have been a clue. Why hadn’t I thought to get him a household companion? Why hadn’t I seriously entertained the idea of our moving back to help him?

Because he was obstinate and didn’t want help.

Because he was not fond of people.

Because he liked living on his own and had said he didn’t want us to interfere.

Because I found it easier living far away from him, where he couldn’t be cruel to me.

As you can probably tell from the title of this blog, this is an Alzheimer’s story, the story of my father’s descent into the disease, and the strange ride that I and my family took along with him. And like many Alzheimer’s tales, it begins not with the onset of the disease, but rather, with the moment the family learns of the diagnosis. My dad, you see, never knew he had Alzheimer’s.Continue Reading

What Was in His Pocket: Real Life Adventure #3

Photo from An Affordable Wardrobe
Photo from An Affordable Wardrobe


“Failure to thrive,” was the EMTs’ initial assessment.

It was two days after the collapse, late afternoon, and I was standing in my father’s hospital room, after having taken a five-hour flight from Lima to Orlando, then a two hours’ ride by car to Gainesville. The bright florescent lights shone on the newly polished linoleum floor, some kind of heart monitor beeped in the background. My dad was propped up in bed, his face gaunt, an IV tube stuck in his arm.

His face brightened when he saw me. “Barb….”

“Oh, Dad, god.” I bent down to hug him. He felt bony – much thinner than when I had visited him at Christmas time a month earlier. How could someone change so much in so short a time?

“What happened?” I asked.

“I don’t know.” He blinked his watery blue eyes. “I think I was in my house.”

I walked over to the chart pinned on his wall. My dad was being given intravenous with glucose, vitamins and antibiotics. What were those for?Continue Reading

The Medics Weigh In: Real Life Adventure #2


January 2011. My father had had a collapse.

The medics got me on the phone. “He’s in bad shape, ma’am. Looks like he’s been sitting in this chair for a week. Barely eating. Dehydrated. We’re taking him to North Florida Regional.”

“He says his bottom hurts.” I said.

“Ma’am, he’s been using the chair as his toilet.”

Holy god, I thought. He’s not impacted. He’s falling apart.

The poodle was yipping and yapping in the background.

“I’m on my way,” I said. “I have to get a flight from South America. I’ll be there … as soon as I can.”

Click here for the first post in this series, Real Life Adventure #1

The Phone Call: Real Life Adventure #1

finger with blue telephone keypad - communication concept

In January 2011, I had a strange conversation with my father.

My husband and I were living in Peru, our home for the last five years. My father, a healthy 86-year-old widower, was living in his home in Florida.  He was all alone except for his poodle, Charlie Brown. Still, he got out regularly – errands, church, weekly meetings of the Masons. I wasn’t too worried about him. Years before I had gotten him one of those Life Alert things, and he wore it around his neck. His neighbors looked in on him. Plus we talked several times a week. This was one of those times.

“Dad, I tried calling you earlier,” I said. “The phone just rang and rang. Where were you?”

“Oh, Barbara. It’s all screwed up…” His voice trailed off.

“Dad, where were you?” I persisted.

“I’m right here,” he said, his voice keening.

“Is everything okay?”

“All they gave me is goddamn crackers.”

“Dad, you’re not sounding okay.”

“Just Townhouse crackers. Shut up!” This to the dog, who was yapping in the background.Continue Reading

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