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Menopause remedies contain unknown risks Omega-3 deficiency may be hurting our hearts Bill Cosby keeps it clean for humor prize Most viewed on msnbc.com By Tom McGrath updated 2 hours, 56 minutes ago Rich P. is only in his 20s, but these days he finds himself obsessing over something most guys his age never think twice about: Am I doomed to lose my mind? In some ways, Rich's anxiety is understandable. "My girlfriend is a social worker who works with the aged, specifically people with Alzheimer's," he says. "So I've seen close up what the disease does to you." Indeed, Alzheimer's disease is characterized by memory loss and confusion, and typically ends with complete disconnection from the world. People in its advanced stages can't care for themselves, recognize loved ones, or remember the lives they lived. (Worried about losing your memory and health as you age? Discover the age erasers for men that can strip away 10 years and leave you looking and feeling younger, longer!) There's also another, even more personal connection for Rich: His girlfriend's father recently passed away from Alzheimer's. He was one of more than 70,000 Americans who die from the disease every year. Still, what should worry Rich most isn't what he's witnessed in other people, but what he sees in the mirror. Because there, literally right under his nose, is evidence that the monster that could be responsible for Alzheimer's is already skulking about inside his body, preparing itself-at some point, decades down the road-to attack and destroy his brain. So here's the question: Is it in you, too? For years, physicians and Alzheimer's experts have said that the earliest symptoms of the disease typically don't appear until you're in your 60s, 70s, or beyond. But now there's reason to believe that the first warning signs may actually crop up much earlier than that, and in a seemingly much more benign way: as cold sores, those embarrassing blisters that can erupt on the lips of people who are sick or run-down. The sores are triggered by the herpes virus — most often, herpes simplex virus type 1 (not to be confused with HSV-2, which predominately causes genital herpes). In recent years, a growing body of research, much of it championed by a British scientist, has begun to suggest a startling fact: The same virus known for sabotaging people's social lives could be responsible for the majority of Alzheimer's cases. "There's clearly a very strong connection," says the researcher, Ruth Itzhaki, Ph.D., speaking one afternoon in her office at the University of Manchester, in northwestern England. A neurobiologist, Itzhaki has spent the better part of two decades studying the link between herpes and Alzheimer's. "I estimate that about 60 percent of Alzheimer's cases could be caused by the virus." As viruses go, herpes is a particularly devilish bugger. The ancient Greeks were among the first to record the sores it causes (the virus's name is derived from a Greek word meaning "to creep"), and today the microbe is ubiquitous. As many as 85 percent of us have been infected by it, though experts say as few as 15 percent show symptoms. Worse, once you have it, you have it forever: After the initial infection, the virus lies dormant in your peripheral nervous system, occasionally flaring up during periods of stress, illness, or fatigue. You can follow these three steps to prevent a herpes outbreak, but it never completely disappears. And it's that fact — herpes as the viral equivalent of The Thing That Wouldn't Leave — that lies at the heart of the herpes-Alzheimer's relationship. Research suggests that as we age, HSV-1 actually spreads to our brains, where in certain people, Itzhaki theorizes, it can cause the buildup of deposits — known as amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles — that attack and destroy the cells responsible for memory, language, and physical functions. In short, those people develop Alzheimer's. It's a provocative theory, one that would sound preposterous if it weren't for the steadily accumulating evidence. Last January, for instance, Itzhaki and her colleague, Matthew Wozniak, Ph.D., published a study in the Journal of Pathology in which they searched for the presence of the herpes virus in people's brains. They found that it resided in 90 percent of the amyloid plaques. "The link between herpes and Alzheimer's has been there for a while, but more people are starting to pay attention," says Howard Federoff, M.D., Ph.D., an expert on neurodegenerative diseases and the executive dean of the school of medicine at Georgetown University. "It's no longer just a curiosity."