The dementia is Primary Progressive Aphasia (PPA), a neurological disease in which people have trouble recalling and understanding words. In PPA, people lose the ability to express themselves and understand speech. It differs from typical Alzheimer's disease in which a person's memory becomes impaired.
Sandra Weintraub, principal investigator and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and of neurology at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine, began investigating a possible link between the surgery and PPA when one of her male patients connected the onset of his language problem at age 43 to the period after his vasectomy.
At a twice-yearly Chicago support group for PPA patients Weintraub sees from around the country, the male patient rushed into the room and asked the men sitting there, "OK, guys, how many of you have PPA?" Nine hands went up.
"How many of you had a vasectomy?" he demanded next. Eight hands shot up.
Weintraub and her team of researchers surveyed 47 men with PPA who were being treated at Northwestern's Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center and 57 men with no cognitive impairment who were community volunteers. They ranged from 55 to 80 years old.
Of the non-impaired men, 16 percent had undergone a vasectomy. In contrast, 40 percent of the men with PPA had had the surgery.
"That's a huge difference," said Weintraub, director of neuropsychology in the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center. "It doesn't mean having a vasectomy will give you this disease, but it may be a risk factor to increase your chance of getting it."
In addition, the men who had undergone a vasectomy developed PPA at a younger age (58 years) than men with PPA who hadn't had one (62 years.)