Is Alzheimer's Disease Hereditary?

21/11/2011 12:30 GMT | Updated 20/01/2012 10:12 GMT

Many congratulations to author Alice LaPlante, winner of the Wellcome Trust Book Prize on the theme of health and medicine, and for her creative approach to Alzheimer's disease in her novel, Turn of Mind.

LaPlante's  knowledge of nature's cruelty comes from personal experience as her mother suffers from the disease. Fictionalised in her novel, Alzheimer's is suffered by her main character, Jennifer White,  a suspect in the murder of her best friend, Amanda O'Toole. But as she has Alzheimer's, and so cannot be sure of the truth. It sounds riveting.

Writing in The Times, the author describes how she channelled the pain of her mother's dementia into writing the book. However, I am struck by her opening paragraph where she states that not only does her mother have this devastating disease, but that it seemingly runs in the family as her grandmother, aunts and great-aunts were also victims to it.

It's no surprise then that she fears its vicious grip too: "I assume that I am going to get it. I'm 53 and I think of myself as having 20 good years left. There's a test that can tell you if you're going to get it and I would take it if it weren't for the insurance implications."

LaPlante lives in the US where if you have a disease such as this, you cannot get insurance.

"I am probably in denial, although I do worry about the financial implications for my husband and daughter who is 16."

I have always understood that Alzheimer's disease is not hereditary, and yet it clearly seems to be the case with LaPlante's family where only its women seem to have been affected.

I asked Prof Clive Ballard, Director of Research for the Alzheimer's Society, whether it was hereditary after he spoke at the Conservative Party conference a couple of years ago in an attempt to seek support for future funding, and he assured me it was not.

I wonder what data is available to substantiate this view, and how unusual it is for a family like LaPlante's to have so many of their women cursed this way. Is there a gene which makes their females particularly susceptible?

Curiously, LaPlante writes about her mother's deteriorating condition and describes how not long ago, she signed a "do not resuscitate" notice. I wonder if her mother would have had the mental capacity to make such a decision, and why it was deemed necessary.

The book has had some terrific reviews, some of which you can view here on Amazon.