Alzheimer's In Colombia

Photographs by Alvaro Ybarra Zavala

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The following is an extract of a full article by journalist Christine Toomey, which can be licensed directly from her (contact details provided on request).

In the rugged mountains north of the Colombian city of Medellin lies a cluster of small towns and villages where, for decades, the population has fallen prey to the murderous whims of drug traffickers, paramilitaries and left-wing guerrillas. Further isolated by the treacherous terrain of the Andean highlands, these communities are also stalked by premature death of a different kind.

Many of those who live in the area, Antioquia, suffer from a disease that robs them of all memory. Their affliction mirrors that of the villagers in One Hundred Years of Solitude, by the Nobel prizewinner Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In the novel, the health of the villagers is eventually restored by a gypsy’s magic potion. But those who fall ill here suffer years of painful oblivion before they die.

Generation after generation has been ravaged by what was known for centuries simply as ‘la bobera’, or idiocy, a condition locals believed was caused by a curse or contact with a poisoned tree. In years gone by, the afflicted, ‘los bobos’, were often locked away and ignored. “Many were corralled outside to stop them straying and treated little better than animals,” says Blanca Nelly, whose grandmother, mother, five aunts and uncles, brother, sister and now husband have fallen victim.

The real cause of so much misery was only recently discovered to be a rare inherited form of early-onset Alzheimer’s; a form so virulent that it affects nearly half the members of some families in the area. Many of the afflicted are reduced to wrecks in their forties. Few live much beyond 60. The gene mutation that blights this community can be traced back to Spanish settlers in the 18th century; its prevalence is the result of repeated intermarriage in a remote, hostile terrain where there are few options when it comes to finding partners.

Early-onset Alzheimer’s, generally passed down as a dominant genetic trait from one parent, is rare, accounting for less than 1% of all cases of the disease worldwide. But the brain lesions seen in Colombian early-onset victims are very similar to those seen in the usual late-onset form of Alzheimer’s, where symptoms rarely appear before the age of 65. Now it is thought these remote Colombian communities may hold the key to new treatments for all Alzheimer’s sufferers.

This feature was shot in November 2011.

Full edit of 63 images available on request.