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Alzheimer’s disease is a condition that affects the way your brain functions. In the early stages, people with Alzheimer’s often experience memory loss, such as:
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disease, which means it gets worse over time. People with late-stage Alzheimer’s often need help with most of their everyday activities, such as eating, dressing, and bathing.
Researchers still aren’t sure what causes Alzheimer’s disease. But certain factors increase your likelihood of developing this incurable disease. You can control some factors by making different lifestyle choices. You should also talk to your doctor about what else you can do to lower your risk.
Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of growing older. However, age is a risk factor for developing this condition. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 1 in 9 people over age 65 and 1 in 3 people over 85 has Alzheimer’s.
Women outnumber men when it comes to Alzheimer’s. According to one study, a woman’s risk of getting the disease is 1.5 to 3 times higher than a man’s. Odds increase after menopause. Since women typically live longer than men, and the occurrence of Alzheimer’s increases with age, this could also be a factor.
Researchers have found two classes of genes related to Alzheimer’s. Deterministic genes guarantee that people will develop the disease if they live long enough. Usually people with deterministic genes will develop Alzheimer’s in their 30s, 40s, or 50s. The Mayo Clinic estimates that these genes caused the condition in about 5 percent of people with Alzheimer’s.
People with risk genes may or may not develop the disease. However, they are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than people without risk genes. The gene that’s most commonly correlated with Alzheimer’s is called apolipoprotein E-e4 (APOE-e4).
Alzheimer’s often runs in the family. If you have a parent, sibling, or child with the disease, you’re more likely to develop it yourself. Your risk goes up if multiple family members have Alzheimer’s. This could be due to genes, lifestyle factors, or a combination of both.
The gene APOE-e4 plays a role here, too. APOE-e4 coupled with a family history of the disease significantly increases your risk.
People who’ve had serious head injuries are at higher risk for Alzheimer’s. Their risk increases if the injury involves losing consciousness or happens repeatedly, such as in contact sports.
Scientists have identified brain abnormalities in people who are likely to later develop Alzheimer’s. One is the presence of tiny clumps of protein, also known as plaques. The other is twisted protein strands, or tangles. Inflammation, tissue shrinkage, and loss of connection between brain cells are other clues that Alzheimer’s may develop.
Researchers have identified smoking as a risk factor for Alzheimer’s. An article published in the American Journal of Epidemiology examined 19 previous studies. Researchers concluded that current smokers were more likely to develop Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia than those who had never smoked.
Having high blood pressure may increase your risk for developing Alzheimer’s. Researchers have found an especially strong correlation between high blood pressure at middle age and the chances of later developing the disease.
Being overweight can double your risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Obesity, or a body mass index of more than 30, triples your risk.
Lack of exercise can make you more prone to Alzheimer’s. If you exercise at least twice a week during midlife, you might lower your chances of getting Alzheimer’s in your senior years.
Mental activity might be as important as physical activity for decreasing your risk. Mental challenges include:
These mental challenges may help keep your cognitive functions healthy. Social interaction also helps. The key is to pick activities that challenge you. Researchers aren’t sure why this works. One theory is that your brain develops more internal connections through these challenges, which protect against dementia.
People who eat few fruits and vegetables may have a higher incidence of Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Make an appointment with your doctor if you’re concerned about your risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Keep a journal of any memory problems you’re having and go over it at your appointment. Although there is no cure, an early diagnosis will allow you to start a treatment that will help you manage your symptoms.
Written by: Wendy Leonard, MPH
Medically reviewed on: Sep 23, 2016: Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP
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