Like other chronic diseases, Alzheimer’s involves a variety of risk factors and can progress over the course of many years.
Alzheimer’s often causes changes to the brain years before symptoms emerge. Individuals who show no signs of the disease now may still be at risk in the future. As testing methods advance, scientists hope to better understand the individuals most at risk so that treatment can begin early.
Researchers don’t yet fully understand the causes of Alzheimer’s, but they have identified a number of risk factors for the disease. If you believe you have an elevated likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s, there are positive steps you can take.
Some of the Risks of Developing Alzheimer’s Include…
Age is one of the most widely recognized risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s. Beyond age 65, your chances of developing the disease double every five years.
As individuals age into their 80s and 90s, Alzheimer’s becomes much more common. After age 95, risk of developing Alzheimer’s climbs to almost 50 percent. Some research has shown that the number of new diagnoses begins to decline after the age of 90, but other evidence indicates that the risk may continue to increase.
While developing Alzheimer’s is not a certainty as people grow older, increasing age is clearly a risk factor.
Women’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s is as much as three times higher than the risk for men, and the risk increases following menopause. The fact that women tend to live longer than men may play a role in the higher risk among women, but some researchers say the risk for women is elevated even when increased lifespan is considered.
Scientists have not yet uncovered the reasons that women have greater risk. Increased rates of vascular disease or lower estrogen levels may play a role.
If you’ve had a serious head injury, you may be at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s. The risk increases in cases in which an injury caused a loss of consciousness. Repeated head injuries, such as those often experienced in contact sports, also increase the odds of developing Alzheimer’s.
Moderate head injuries — including a loss of consciousness longer than 30 minutes — are associated with twice the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Severe head injuries that cause loss of consciousness for 24 hours or more correlate with 4.5 times the risk.
Lack of Mental Challenges
Research has found that failing to engage in sufficient mental challenges can increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Some examples of mentally challenging activities include taking lifelong learning courses, reading, working puzzles and playing games.
Participating in activities that you find mentally stimulating — including connecting and interacting with other people — can play a role in keeping you cognitively healthy. Researchers haven’t determined why mentally challenging activities help, but some believe that challenging activities spur the brain to develop additional internal connections that can provide protection against dementia.
In many cases, Alzheimer’s disease runs in families. If your parent, child or sibling has Alzheimer’s, you are at higher risk of developing the condition. In addition, your risk increases if multiple relatives have the disease.
The increased risk for individuals with family members who have the disease may be due to environmental factors, genetics or a combination of the two.
Research has found that suffering from depression may increase the tendency to develop Alzheimer’s. One study found that a history of depression appeared to double the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Another study considered a possible connection between depression and the development of the types of brain abnormalities that characterize Alzheimer’s. Researchers found that among 102 individuals who died from Alzheimer’s disease, the individuals who also suffered from depression at some point showed more of the types of brain tangles and plaques that are hallmarks of Alzheimer’s.
It’s clear that Alzheimer’s can run in families, and gene mutations may be responsible in a small number of cases. Only about 2 to 3 percent of Alzheimer’s patients have the disease because of identifiable, defective genes, medical authorities note.
In families with one of the genetic mutations known to cause Alzheimer’s, each offspring has a 50-percent risk of inheriting the mutated gene. Those gene mutations are found in very few families.
However, many more individuals may have a genetic predisposition to developing the disease that may combine with other factors to increase risk.
Other Risk Factors
A number of medical conditions may play roles in the development of Alzheimer’s. Medical experts say that being overweight can double the risk of Alzheimer’s, and individuals with a body mass index greater than 30 can have three times the risk.
In addition, getting little exercise can increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Exercising at least twice a week in midlife may lower the risk of developing the disease in later years. Eating insufficient fruits and vegetables is also associated with a higher incidence of Alzheimer’s.
Cardiovascular disease and its risk factors — including high blood pressure, smoking, high LDL cholesterol, low HDL cholesterol and type 2 diabetes — also appear to increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
How Can You Reduce Your Risk?
Many of the risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease are not under your control. For instance, you cannot influence whether you’ve had a head injury in the past or if Alzheimer’s runs in your family.
Experts believe that Alzheimer’s occurs due to many complex interactions among a variety of factors.
However, research has begun to demonstrate that individuals may have the ability to influence some risk factors through choices related to wellness and lifestyle, along with management of existing medical conditions. To keep your risk as low as possible, the Alzheimer’s Association advises that you:
- Protect your head from injury by wearing a helmet if you ride a bike or participate in sports, wearing a seatbelt when riding in a vehicle, and removing any tripping hazards like area rugs from your home.
- Work with your medical provider to manage chronic conditions that can damage your blood vessels and heart, including diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
- Incorporate strategies for healthy aging, including eating a healthy diet, getting some exercise and staying socially connected to others.
Maryland Memory Care
If you or a relative need supportive services for Alzheimer’s, you’ll find a nurturing atmosphere at Gull Creek. In our intimate neighborhood setting, specially trained staff members provide personalized and compassionate attention to help individuals with dementia thrive. To learn more, please contact Gull Creek.