HIV patients now live long enough to develop Alzheimer’s

Antiretrovirals used to treat HIV are changing lifespans for patients.
Antiretrovirals used to treat HIV are changing lifespans for patients.
Image: Reuters/Thomas Mukoya
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With proper treatment, HIV is no-longer the imminent death sentence it once was. This means that patients with HIV are living longer than ever before—long enough to contract age-related illnesses.

Earlier this month, clinicians at Georgetown University diagnosed the first reported case where a patient who had HIV was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and wrote about it in the Alzheimer’s & Dementia Journal. The patient is 71 years old and has been living with HIV for 14 years.

“HIV used to be a fatal disease, but it’s now a chronic disorder,” Scott Turner, a neurologist at Georgetown University and lead author of the paper, said.

Since 1996, life expectancy for a 20-year-old, HIV-positive patient has improved from 19 years to 53 years in 2011. Turner explained that now, there’s a population of people living with HIV who may face age-related health complications.

However, doctors haven’t studied aging in HIV patients long enough to know how best to treat them. It’s also difficult for clinicians to distinguish between routine complications of having HIV and other conditions that may be unrelated. Turner explained that HIV-positive patients often experience a mild cognitive decline called HIV–associated neurocognitive disorder. Often, he said, doctors will notice this cognitive decline and assume that it is part of their existing illness.

But Alzheimer’s is different. Though it accounts for 60 to 80% of all forms of dementia, it’s distinct because it is characterized by deposits of specific proteins clumping together in the brain. While there is no cure, there are treatments that can alleviate some of the symptoms. If doctors fail to test for the specific plaques associated with Alzheimer’s, patient’s may be potentially missing out on treatment.

Additionally, research has indicated that those who have HIV and are undergoing treatment age prematurely, as much as 13 to 15 years. However, it’s still unclear whether this aging, the virus itself, or the treatment for it is directly linked to Alzheimer’s.

Turner says that patients with HIV have been excluded from previous research on Alzheimer’s. He suspects that more cases will be diagnosed in the future.