Alzheimer’s Disease Risk Factors
When Alzheimer’s strikes, the early signs are often recognized, including mild problems with memory and slight confusion. As the disease progresses, it may cause noticeable personality changes and more memory loss — with even family, friends and important events eventually forgotten.
Scientists have not yet uncovered a cure for Alzheimer’s, but some management strategies and medications may ease the symptoms. If you or a family member begins to develop the signs of Alzheimer’s disease, seek medical treatment as soon as possible to help retain your independence and cognitive functioning for longer.
Despite the lack of a cure, researchers have identified a number of key elements affecting the development of Alzheimer’s. What are the primary risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease, and what positive steps can you take to help protect yourself and your family members? Let’s explore the answers to these questions below.
Genetics and Family History
Approximately a quarter of Americans were born with the so-called “Alzheimer’s gene,” known in scientific parlance as APOE e4. If you have one copy of the gene, your risk of developing the disease may be three times higher than that of people without the gene. Another two percent of Americans have two copies of the APOE e4 gene, which can increase risk by up to 12 times.
The average age of diagnosis is 84 for individuals who do not have the gene. Individuals with the gene, meanwhile, tend to develop the disease between eight and 16 years earlier. Worldwide, just under half of individuals with Alzheimer’s have been found to have APOE e4, also known as the “risk gene.”
Another class of gene known as “deterministic” affects far fewer individuals, accounting for only about five percent of people with Alzheimer’s. Scientists note that deterministic genes affect the chances of developing the rare, early-onset form of the disease.
Individuals who carry the “risk gene” for the more common, late-onset form of Alzheimer’s do not always develop the disease, although the risk is elevated. Even if you do have the gene, it’s important to understand that factors other than genetics, including lifestyle and environment, also affect the risk of developing late-onset Alzheimer’s.
Obesity and Lack of Exercise
Being overweight or obese, as well as failing to engage in physical activity on a regular basis, both can affect the chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, your risk may double if you are overweight — and it may triple if you are obese.
In addition, a lack of physical exercise also can make you more likely to develop the disease. Individuals who exercise at least twice a week during middle age may reduce their chances of developing Alzheimer’s later in life.
An unhealthy diet also may contribute to the odds of developing Alzheimer’s; research has found that individuals who eat a small number of fruits and vegetables may have a higher incidence of the disease.
Alcohol has been identified as a potential cause of many types of illnesses and injuries, including some cancers, heart disease and cirrhosis of the liver. Additionally, alcohol may play a role — either positive or negative — in the potential development of Alzheimer’s. Interestingly, individuals who completely avoid alcohol have a slightly higher risk than those who consume moderate amounts. Individuals who drink to excess have the highest level of risk.
High Blood Pressure
Individuals with high blood pressure during middle age have an elevated risk for developing dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, compared to people with blood pressure in the normal range.
Elevated blood pressure has an impact on circulation, the arteries and the heart, which can increase the risk of developing dementia; the vascular form of the disease is especially affected. A healthy diet and increased physical activity can help lower blood pressure, which also can lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Medications for lowering high blood pressure also may help.
Individuals who have higher-than-average cholesterol by middle age have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s compared to people with normal cholesterol levels. People who take statin drugs to lower cholesterol also reduce their risk of dementia, research has found, since effective treatment of cholesterol plays a vital role in the health of both the heart and brain.
In addition to serving as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and hypertension, high cholesterol also increases the risk of developing diabetes — another risk factor that has been found to double the chances of Alzheimer’s.
High blood sugar can damage blood vessels within the brain, contributing to dementia. In addition, insulin resistance may contribute to the tangles and plaques that serve as a defining characteristic of Alzheimer’s. Individuals with diabetes who take specific medications — including metformin and pioglitazone — may significantly lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Other Medical Conditions
Diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure can have a significant impact on the chances that you or a family member will develop Alzheimer’s. However, other medical conditions also may affect your risk. Multiple sclerosis, chronic kidney disease, Parkinson’s disease, HIV, learning disabilities, Down syndrome and other conditions may increase the chances of developing dementia.
The evidence against smoking is overwhelming. For people who value a healthy lifestyle — and hope to stay healthy as they age — smoking clearly stands as one of the worst possible activities.
Research has found that smokers face risk nearly 60-percent higher than non-smokers of developing Alzheimer’s. Tobacco increases oxidative stress to the brain and allows free radicals — compounds that damage cells — to hasten the appearance of tangles and plaques in the brain.
Within six months of smoking, experts say, your artery health will begin to improve — and your brain health may as well. Stopping smoking also decreases the chances of having a stroke, which can worsen Alzheimer’s. If you need assistance with smoking cessation, please see your doctor.
A Lack of Intellectual Engagement
Research has shown that mental stimulation may be as important as physical activity for helping lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. If you want to increase your level of intellectual engagement, you can participate in any number of activities, including continuing education, playing games, working puzzles, playing a musical instrument, learning a language, attending lectures, volunteering in the community, reading, and taking part in hobbies like painting, woodworking or crafts.
When you participate in activities that mentally challenge you, the chances increase that your cognitive functioning remains healthy. In addition, engaging in social activities with others can help maintain your brain health. Take steps to strengthen relationships with friends and family members, and join in activities that allow you to make new friends.
Along with genetics, some risk factors for development of Alzheimer’s are simply unavoidable. If you’ve had a head injury in the past — and especially if you have suffered multiple injuries — you have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. Research has found that deposits that accumulate in the brain due to such injuries may be associated with the development of dementia.
Moderate or severe head injuries that cause unconsciousness for 30 minutes or more — such as the injuries that may occur in a car accident — can significantly elevate your chances of developing Alzheimer’s. However, mild head trauma does not appear to increase the risk.
You can take steps to prevent future head injuries by avoiding falls. To reduce the risk of falls, remove clutter, loose throw rugs and other tripping hazards from your home, make sure lighting is adequate, and add handrails and grab bars as needed.
Of all the risk factors for dementia, age carries the most weight. However, developing Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia is not an inevitable part of aging. In fact, most people don’t develop the disease as they get older, and genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors continue to have an impact on risk.
A small number of younger people — generally in their 40s and 50s — are diagnosed with the rare, early-onset form of Alzheimer’s. After age 65, the risk of developing the disease doubles about every five years, and the risk continues to grow with age.
The process of aging itself may contribute to development of the disease as the body’s mechanisms for repair, including within the brain, begin to deteriorate. In addition, risk factors associated with heart health — including heart disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol — also can affect the brain and tend to worsen with age. Age-related changes within the brain also may cause damage to nerve cells, contributing to Alzheimer’s.
Additional Risk Factors
Ongoing research into the causes of Alzheimer’s continues to uncover new information, and some potential risk factors remain under consideration.
Common infections — including by the bacteria that causes pneumonia, along with herpes simplex virus 1 — may trigger inflammation of brain tissue, which can spur the development of tangles and plaques in the brain. In addition, some researchers believe that an imbalance of friendly organisms in the digestive system also may increase inflammation, contributing to development of Alzheimer’s.
While researchers know that age is an important factor in Alzheimer’s, they remain unsure of the role of gender. Some researchers believe that women are more likely than men to develop the disease, but scientific evidence so far has not proven the connection. More research is needed to determine whether additional factors may influence women’s risk for developing Alzheimer’s.
Additionally, individuals who become depressed in later life or who have a history of depression may be at increased risk for Alzheimer’s. However, the specific relationship between dementia and depression requires more scientific investigation to determine whether depression may be a risk factor or an early symptom.
Take Steps to Protect Your Brain Health
While you cannot control every risk factor in the development of dementia, you can take a number of steps to help protect brain health for yourself or a relative.
As many as 50 percent of the cases of Alzheimer’s around the world may be due to risk factors related at least in part to lifestyle. As much as possible, try to engage in regular physical activity, eat a healthy diet, stay socially connected with others, take part in in mentally stimulating activities, and work with your doctor to control chronic conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure.
At Homestead at Hamilton, you’ll find a variety of options for engaging your mind, body and spirit as you connect with others and experience a wide range of activities. At our memory care community — located in Hamilton Township, New Jersey — you’ll enjoy access to multiple dining options, convenient services and elegant amenities. To schedule a visit, please contact us today.