Alzheimer’s disease is a chronic, slowly progressive, condition that destroys brain nerve cells and other structures in the central nervous system. People with Alzheimer’s disease slowly develop dementia, a loss of memory and intellectual and social skills, that results in confusion, disorientation, and the inability to think, reason, and understand. The decline in cognition and memory results in difficulty performing the activities of daily living. Alzheimer’s is a leading cause of death in the United States and there currently is no cure.
A risk factor is something that increases your likelihood of getting a disease or condition. There are still many questions regarding the exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease, so risk factors are still being identified. It is possible to develop Alzheimer’s disease with or without the risk factors listed below, but the more risk factors you have, the greater your likelihood of developing the disease. Currently, risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s disease include:
- Age—Age is the most important known risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease. The number of people with Alzheimer’s disease doubles every 5 years beyond age 65 until age 85. By age 85, almost 50% of all people have the disease.
- Gender—Alzheimer’s disease affects both men and women, but women may have a slightly higher risk of developing the disease than men. Some experts believe that this is because women live longer than men.
- Genetics—Individuals with a parent or sibling with Alzheimer’s disease have a 2-3 times greater risk of developing the disease compared to the rest of the population. In addition, there is a clear genetic link established for an early-onset form of Alzheimer’s disease. This form of the disease occurs in people during their 30s, 40s, and early 50s. Scientists continue to study the role of genetic factors in the development of this disease.
- Head Injury—Some studies suggest that people who suffered a serious, traumatic head injury at some time in their lives may be at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
- Vascular Risk Factors—Other conditions that result in blocked or reduced blood flow to the brain can also increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Down’s Syndrome—More than half of people with Down’s Syndrome who live to be age 40 or older develop Alzheimer’s disease.
- High Cholesterol and High Blood Pressure
- Vitamin B12 deficiency—low levels of the vitamin B12 and folate have been linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease
- Depression and Anxiety
- Overweight or Obese
Ways to Reduce Your Risk
While there is no absolute cure at this time, it is thought that diet, mental activity, and exercise may play a key role in reducing your risk of developing Alzheimer’s. The Alzheimer’s Association® makes these recommendations to maintain brain health:
- Schedule time for cardiovascular exercise. Cardiovascular exercise, like running or swimming, raises the heart rate and increases blood flow to the brain.
- Participate in formal education, in any stage of life. Taking a class at a local college or community center can help reduce the risk of dementia.
- Quit smoking. Studies have shown that quitting smoking can reduce the risk of dementia to the same as those who have not smoked. It’s not too late to quit!
- Maintain good cardiovascular health. Avoid obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes.
- Avoid brain injury. Wear a seatbelt in the car, a helmet when riding a bike or playing contact sports and work to prevent falls.
- Eat a balanced and healthy diet. Eating green, leafy vegetables and following specific diets, like the Mediterranean diet, have been shown to help reduce the risk of dementia. Drink alcohol in moderation, meaning one drink or less per day for women, and two drinks per day or less for men. If you do not drink, you do not have to start to get any benefits
- Get quality sleep. People with sleep disorders or those who do not get enough sleep have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s and related dementias.
- Treat depression. Those with a history of depression and anxiety have an increased risk of dementia. Talk to a professional and take medication, if necessary.
- Stay socially engaged. Stay involved in daily life with friends and social activities that are important to you.
- Challenge yourself. Challenging your mind has long and short term benefits for your brain and can include anything from doing a puzzle to painting or playing a card game.
In addition, a recent small study by Dr. Dale Bredesen, a professor at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging and a professor at the Easton Laboratories for Neurodegenerative Disease Research at UCLA, found that some memory loss was significantly reversed in participants who used a 36-point program for metabolic enhancement for neurodegeneration (MEND). With an individualized regimen of diet, exercise, brain stimulation, sleep quality, medication and vitamins, the study resulted in impressive cognitive improvements. While promising, larger studies need to be performed to determine if Bredesen’s regimen would be as effective in the general population.
While researchers continue to seek a cure for Alzheimer’s, making positive lifestyle changes and having healthy habits can go along way toward preventing this devastating disease. For more information, please visit the Alzheimer’s Association® website (www.alz.org).
Dr. Sanjay Jaswani of LewisGale Physicians can answer all of your questions regarding Alzheimer’s and its symptoms. You can call the practice at (540) 725-3060 or book an appointment online below.