Tag Archives: Dr. Vincent Fortanasce

Kicking Pot To The Curb

Renowned Alzheimer’s researcher Dr. Vincent Fortanasce says marijuana use may lead to the disease

An estimated 200,000 people in the United States under age 65 are living with younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease. And hundreds of thousands more are coping with mild cognitive impairment, a precursor to Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

“It’s beyond epidemic proportions. There truly is a tidal wave of Alzheimer’s disease,” said Dr. Vincent Fortanasce, a clinical professor of neurology in Southern California who is also a renowned Catholic bioethicist, author and radio host.

Fortanasce, a member of Legatus’ San Juan Capistrano Chapter, for several years has studied Alzheimer’s disease, its underlying causes and treatments. Through his research, he believes there may be a link between chronic use of marijuana — especially when started at a young age — and Alzheimer’s.

Finding the link

Fortanasce notes that medical research shows chronic users of marijuana, in particular the kind with high quantities of THC, have reduced volume in the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for memory and learning. In Alzheimer’s disease, Fortanasce said, medical researchers have also noticed reduced hippocampus volume with increased B-amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles.

Taking into account other factors, such as skyrocketing obesity rates and lack of exercise, Fortanasce argues that chronically smoking marijuana and consuming products laced with cannabis are harming the long-term mental health of millions of young Americans. He is trying to convince the American Academy of Neurology to conduct a major survey to see if people diagnosed with dementia have also smoked marijuana.

“And if we find out — especially for people under 65 — that 50% of them were smoking pot, that’s a huge indication that marijuana is responsible for Alzheimer’s disease,” said Fortanasce, who was a leading figure in the fight last year to defeat a California ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana.

Voters in California chose to legalize recreational pot, as did their counterparts in several other states last November, raising the total number of states that permit recreational or medical marijuana to 28.

The marijuana lobby has been active in recent years in pushing ballot measures to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, or to legalize medical marijuana and fully recreational pot, which is now legal in eight states and the District of Columbia.

The Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit that supports legalization, boasts on its website that it is “devoting significant resources” to ending marijuana prohibition in eight more states in 2017 — and that it’s lobbying and building coalitions across the country to regulate marijuana like alcohol.

Moral issue

In addition to the money and organizing efforts driving the legalization campaigns, Fortanasce said widespread ignorance has enabled the marijuana lobby to obfuscate the issue. While marijuana may have some medicinal properties (cannabidiol in pot, for example, can help decrease nausea and be used to treat seizures), Fortanasce noted that there are already medications on the market that are far more efficacious than marijuana.

“It takes the average drug about 10 years to get on the market — an anti-inflammatory, simple drugs like aspirin,” Fortanasce said. “You have 10 years of painstaking research, averaging $1 billion spent by pharmaceutical companies. Before they can give it to people, it’ll have to pass between three and five stages of scrutiny.”

“Marijuana has not had to go through any of these stages,” Fortanasce said, “and the question is why?”

Father Michael Orsi, who serves on the board of directors at St. Matthew’s House, which runs a drug recovery program in Naples, Fla., said the drug lobby has been successful because of wealthy donors and advertising that suggests that legalizing medical marijuana is a matter of compassion.

“It’s a real tragedy for society because it’s going to affect people who are using and not using marijuana — especially people who are going to be hurt while driving,” said Fr. Orsi. He last year spoke out against a medical marijuana ballot initiative in Florida. The initiative passed.

“The law is designed to legalize pot. Don’t let anyone be fooled that this is something done out of compassion,” said Fr. Orsi, who added that 99% of the clients in the St. Matthew’s House recovery program started smoking marijuana before becoming addicted to harder drugs like cocaine and heroin.

“There is a moral issue involved with anything that’s harmful to human beings,” Fr. Orsi said.

Death and addiction

There is no defined, specific Catholic teaching on cannabis. But Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Church documents condemn drunkenness and recreational drug use that impair the mind and body. The Catechism describes the use of drugs, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, as a grave offense (#2291).

With those principles in mind, the nation’s Catholic bishops have frequently spoken out against marijuana-related ballot measures. In Massachusetts, where voters legalized recreational pot last November, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, held press events with elected officials and interfaith leaders to speak out against the initiative.

“There was real effort to get the word out, but unfortunately the voters didn’t go in that direction,” said James Driscoll, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.

Driscoll highlighted several problematic aspects of marijuana legalization, noting that it is happening at the same time that a national opioid epidemic is ravaging communities across the country. He referenced scientific studies indicating marijuana use hampers brain development in youth and can be traced to increased rates of school dropouts and highway deaths in states like Colorado that have legalized recreational pot in recent years.

“The proof is in the pudding,” Driscoll said.

Fortanasce agrees with Driscoll, adding that marijuana promotes isolation and a decrease in socialization, making its users more apathetic and distracted. Noting the brain chemistry involved, Fortanasce also argues there is a direct association with the use of marijuana, pornography and violent video games.

“In marijuana the fear centers of the brain, the anxiety centers, are built up, while the cognitive center, the hippocampus, loses 20% of its volume,” Fortanasce said. “Therefore the sense of morality and self-control, motivation, is lost, as is what we call executive functioning, the ability to follow through. That is, you find these kids who are into marijuana aren’t very motivated.”

Arguing that the brains of chronic marijuana users resemble those of Alzheimer’s patients, Fortanasce believes heavy drug use could bring about “a perfect storm” for Alzheimer’s disease when combined with poor diet and other factors. He added that drug use can also hasten the onset of mental illness — or intensify it. And schizophrenia is a well-known example.

“Cannabis has not been clinically studied to the extent that is needed before approving its use in the general population,” Fortanasce explained. “The bottom line: Marijuana is dangerous. It’s not candy.”

BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.

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Face-to-face with a saint

Legates recount meeting with Saint John Paul II and how he touched their lives . . .

As the world’s attention turned toward Rome for the April 27 canonization of Pope John Paul II, Legatus members reminisced on the profound effect the new saint had on Legatus’ founding and growth.

John Paul’s prophetic call for the New Evangelization — one of the hallmarks of his 26-year papacy — has led Legates to think of creative ways to live out this call in the workplace, as well as in their families and communities. Often a meeting with the late pontiff confirmed a Legate’s Catholic faith or inspired a deeper commitment to Jesus Christ.

Holy Spirit moment

Legatus founder Tom Monaghan looks on while  St. John Paul II greets his wife Marjorie on May 7, 1987

Legatus founder Tom Monaghan looks on while St. John Paul II greets his wife Marjorie on May 7, 1987

In the case of Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan, his first meeting with St. John Paul II inspired him to create Legatus. Monaghan had always been a great admirer of the Holy Father because of his Polish background.

“I was brought up in an orphanage with Polish nuns and lots of Polish kids,” he explained. “Because of this, I always felt an affinity for all things Polish.”

Monaghan met the new saint for the first time on May 7, 1987. At the time, Monaghan was in Venice, Italy, for an international meeting of YPO — the Young Presidents’ Organization.

Cardinal Edmund Szoka, then-archbishop of Detroit, asked Monaghan if he wanted to attend a private Mass with the Pope, so he made the hop from Venice to Rome.

“During Mass, I received the Host directly on my tongue from Pope John Paul II, and he stood 12 inches away from me,” Monaghan said. “His eyes looked into my eyes. I will never forget that moment.”

After Mass, the 30 people who had attended Mass went to the papal library. The Pope greeted each person, spoke to them and gave them a rosary. About 45 minutes later, Monaghan got the inspiration to create Legatus based on the YPO model.

Holy encounters

Nancy Gunderson (in white, beside the Pope) places her hand on St. John Paul II’s hand, while Lynn and Michael Joseph (directly behind the Pope’s chair) look on.

Nancy Gunderson (in white, beside the Pope) places her hand on St. John Paul II’s hand, while Lynn and Michael Joseph (directly behind the Pope’s chair) look on.

Bob and Nancy Gunderson, members of Legatus’ Milwaukee Chapter, went on a Legatus pilgrimage in 1999. During a Wednesday general audience in St. Peter’s Square on Oct. 6, the Legatus group was brought forward for a photo with the Pope. Nancy was placed right next to the Holy Father.

“I knelt down to be at his level,” she said. “His arm was on the arm rest and I grabbed his arm.”

When he looked up at Nancy, she told him that everyone in Milwaukee was praying for him and that they all loved him. He smiled at her.

“It was such a thrill to be in the presence of someone you knew to be a saint,” she said.

Mike and Lynne Joseph, members of the Orange County Chapter, were standing right behind John Paul that day. Lynne reached out and put her hand on the Pope’s shoulder.

“It was a thrill just getting close enough to him to be able to pat him on the shoulder as he sat in his chair under a canopy looking out at the throngs of worshippers who filled St. Peter’s Square,” Mike said. “John Paul’s health was definitely in decline at this point. He didn’t say very much, but being in his presence was a very moving experience.”

Fr. Joseph Cocucci holds hands with St. John Paul II in 1983

Fr. Joseph Cocucci holds hands with St. John Paul II in 1983

Father Joe Cocucci, assistant chaplain for Legatus’ Wilmington Chapter, met John Paul as a young priest in 1983 during a general audience in St. Peter’s Square. When the Holy Father came down to shake hands, security called the young priest forward.

“I grabbed my friend Dr. Henry Bender, and we moved to the front row,” Fr. Cocucci explained. “When the Pope got to me, I got nervous and began to speak in Italian.”

His friend Henry and his wife had foster children back in the U.S., including a little girl with developmental problems named Sara. Doctors were having a hard time helping her.

“When the Pope got to Henry, he asked him to please pray for ‘my daughter Sara.’ The Pope replied slowly, ‘I will pray for Sara,’” Fr. Cocucci said.

Over the next year, Sara’s condition inexplicably improved — astounding all doctors. “We attributed her improvement to Pope John Paul II’s prayers,” said Fr. Cocucci.

The name of Jesus

Prominent author and speaker Ralph Martin, president of Renewal Ministries and a member of Legatus’ Ann Arbor Chapter, met John Paul half a dozen times. In the late 1970s, Martin spent an evening with the Holy Father at the invitation of Brussels Cardinal Leo Suenens. The conversation revolved around renewal in the Church, Martin explained. The Pope asked each of those present to share their testimony.

St. John Paul II embraces Legate Ralph Martin in May 1981

St. John Paul II embraces Legate Ralph Martin in May 1981

“Then, at the end, he gave his testimony, saying that when he was a little boy, his father asked him to pray to the Holy Spirit every single day and ask God for guidance,” Martin explained. “He said he had been praying to the Holy Spirit every day just like his father taught him.”

Another profound meeting came in 1994. Martin had an audience with the Pope and presented him with his new book, The Catholic Church at the End of an Age: What is the Spirit Saying?

“When I gave it to him, he said, ‘I read it already,’” Martin said. “I almost fell over at that point, and then he said, ‘Ralph what is the Spirit saying to the Church?’

“I knew he didn’t want the whole 300-page answer, so I said, ‘Holy Father, I think what the Spirit is mainly saying to the Church is Jesus.’ And then the Holy Father took my hand and he said, ‘Jesus.’ I said, ‘Jesus,’ and he said, ‘Jesus.’ We just stood there for a couple of minutes saying the name of Jesus together, and it was just a moment of profound communion in the Lord.”

Doctor to a saint

Dr. Vincent Fortanasce, a member of Legatus’ San Juan Capistrano Chapter, went to Rome in August 2000 to volunteer as a doctor with the Knights of Malta. During one of the general audiences, he noticed how bad John Paul’s health was. As a neurologist, he wondered if the Pope’s Parkinson’s disease was being treated correctly and voiced this concern to a friend, Monsignor Vittorio Formenti.

Dr. Vince Fortanasce poses with a portrait of St. John Paul II in his office in Arcadia, Calif.

Dr. Vince Fortanasce poses with a portrait of St. John Paul II in his office in Arcadia, Calif.

The next day, a group of Swiss Guards found  Fortanasce at a clinic near the Vatican and asked him to follow them. Within minutes, he was introduced to John Paul’s doctors.

“We spoke for half an hour and went over the Pope’s X-rays and medications,” Fortanasce said. “As I was walking out the door, I was motioned to go up a corridor. I walked into a room and found Pope John Paul II sitting by the window, reading a book.”

John Paul asked Fortanasce about his mission. The Legate told him that his life’s mission was to defend life — stopping things like human cloning and embryonic stem-cell research.

“The Pope told me that the real problem was that man believes he is God, and that man is afraid of death because he didn’t have God,” said Fortanasce. “And so people want to do everything possible to postpone death, even at the cost of taking another person’s life.”

John Paul told Fortanasce not to give up and not to expect people to listen.

Fortanasce ended up recommending another medication and an appropriate exercise regimen. The Vatican “paid” him by sending him holy water blessed by the Pope.

All of these Legates said they knew Pope John Paul II would be canonized one day.

“He was my No. 1 hero in the world,” said Monaghan. “He had a presence. He was a man’s man, an intellect and an actor.”

SABRINA ARENA FERRISI is Legatus magazine’s senior staff writer.

The Anti-Alzheimer’s prescription

A Legatus member, Fortanasce is one of the world’s top Alzheimer’s experts . . .

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Alzheimer’s is rampant among older adults worldwide, and as baby boomers age, it promises to be the Great American Epidemic of the 21st century. Unlike other books in the category (which primarily focus on caring for an Alzheimer’s patient after diagnosis), this book presents a program to lower your risk by 70%. While science stumbles in finding a cure, physicians agree on one treatment: prevention. Making proper lifestyle choices can keep you healthy.

Order: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

Brave new world: mandated

This month, we go one-on-one with Dr. Vince Fortanasce, one of the country’s foremost experts in Catholic teaching on bioethical issues. He believes the world is moving quickly in the direction of Aldous Huxley’s frightening Brave New World, published in 1932, which anticipated developments in reproductive technology and biological engineering.

What is pre-implantation genetic screening and diagnosis?

Some prospective parents carry a genetic defect that they might pass on to their children. One way to avoid giving birth to a child with a genetic defect is to have the child engendered through a procedure called in vitro fertilization (where the child is engendered in a glass dish outside the body).

The technicians then use Pre-Implantation Genetic Screening and Diagnosis (PGSD) by which a single cell is extracted from the very early, eight-cell embryo and tested for the defect. If the child has the defect it is discarded. If the child is healthy, an attempt is made to implant it in the woman’s womb.

Why we should be concerned about this procedure?

PGSD originated around 1991 to help those rare cases where a lethal genetic disorder might be passed on to one’s children. There are now 150 diseases that are genetically tested. Embryos with a genetic defect are discarded. You can see that what we have is a microscopic kind of eugenics. Eugenics is a natural progression from PGSD. In theory, the possibility already exists to genetically enhance an embryo at this earliest stage in its life for increased IQ or athletic ability, engendering a “designer baby.” There are many parents who would not want to pass up this possibility!

Does anyone advocate these kinds of interventions?

Yes, indeed! In fact, one “bioethicist” raises it with great seriousness in The Biotechnology Law Report, a legal journal. In 2003, Donrich Jordaan wrote an article entitled “Pre-Implantation Genetic Screening and Selection: An Ethical Analysis.” He argues that parents should be legally liable if they allow a genetically defective child to be born!

Mandating the use of this technology to eliminate the “genetically defective” means that failure to comply could result in legal prosecution. Failure to comply would be seen as “compromising of the prospective child’s health,” giving the child and government the right to sue for harm done by a “negligent” parent. England has a law pending to mandate the destruction of “abnormal” embryos. Regrettably, eugenics is alive and well.

It sounds frighteningly like Brave New World, doesn’t it?

Opinions like these will herald judicial judgments and legal mandates to undermine our own moral rights and place our children in danger. If this seems inconceivable, consider the fact that in California, a 12-year-old child can have an abortion without parental consent, yet not be given an aspirin at school without a parent’s approval.

Are PGSD and eugenics a great danger to Catholicism?

The Catholic Church would naturally oppose such a mandate and would be viewed as a “prejudice society,” along with others who morally object. This is a term used by Jordaan in his article. The government and judicial system may well enforce the use of PGSD, and those who oppose it might actually be “liable and criminally prosecuted.”

There are no guidelines regarding the use of these reproductive technologies in the United States. Yet in Germany, PGSD is illegal. The Germans lived through a period of terrible fanaticism as man tried to play God. They correctly see PGSD as another ugly and dangerous form of eugenics. The Catholic Church is not alone in its objection to these procedures. Time magazine’s editor-at-large Nancy Gibbs, in an essay earlier this year, expressed grave concerns about man playing God with this technology.

Is there anything else alarming in the Jordaan article?

There are numerous issues that follow from Jordaan’s reasoning. He derives conclusions from the utilitarian philosophy that “the end justifies the means,” whereas St. Paul teaches us that we may never do evil that good may come from it. Jordaan dismisses such a moral principle, claiming it is simply unfounded. “The prospective parent’s procreative autonomy is established as a general rule, and the objections that claim to be based on human dignity, naturalness, sentimental morality and eugenics are indicated to be unfounded.”

“Procreative autonomy” would allow any type of procreation, sexual or asexual. This means cloning would be allowed. Homosexuals, for example, could engender their own “offspring” without benefit of a spouse.

As Legatus members, leaders of the Catholic community, it is our responsibility to be knowledgeable of these developments and to act on behalf of the sanctity of life. To do otherwise would give tacit approval of such utilitarian practices. Remember, it is our children who will suffer the full extent of disordered laws and may one day be prosecuted because of their beliefs in the sanctity of all life.

Dr. Vincent M. Fortanasce is a neurologist, a clinical professor at USC with degrees in psychiatry from Yale affiliate IOL and neurology from USC. He is a member of the Pasadena Chapter of Legatus and a nationally known bioethicist, author and host for St. Joseph Radio.