Just because your parent has Alzheimer’s, it doesn’t mean that you will get it as well. Your family genes may make you more susceptible to developing Alzheimer’s but there are many factors that determine whether or not you end up with the disease.
The good news is that there are tests that can determine whether you have this genetic risk. Even better news is that we know much more about the disease than we did a decade ago. We now know there is a lot you can do to mitigate the onset of the condition whether you are or aren’t at risk.
Is Alzheimer’s Hereditary?
Alzheimer’s can be genetic, but it isn’t always. While the disease may be hereditary, it can also be triggered by lifestyle-related issues.
We know that Alzheimer’s is characterized by two types of proteins in the brain: tangles (tau) and plaques (beta amyloid). As these proteins accumulate, they kill brain cells and block neural pathways. These beta-amyloid protein deposits are believed to be one of the main causes of Alzheimer’s.
Scientists are also learning what seems to trigger these toxic proteins. The triggers may occur because of genetic proclivity, but often it is lifestyle-related.
There is also a difference between early and late-onset of Alzheimer’s. Early-onset Alzheimer’s usually occurs in younger people between the ages of 30 and 60. It is often (but not always) a result of a genetic mutation.
Late-onset Alzheimer’s may be genetic and has been clinically linked to a gene called ApoE (apolipoprotein E). It is more likely, however, a result of brain changes caused by lifestyle and environmental impacts. In other words, inherited genes aren’t the only cause of Alzheimer’s.
What Other Factors Cause Alzheimer’s or Dementia?
People with no trace of the ApoE gene can still develop dementia and Alzheimer’s. There are other risk factors which doctors believe contribute to these conditions. They include:
- Lack of exercise. A sedentary lifestyle void of exercise isn’t healthy for anyone. Experts now say it can also speed the onset of cognitive decline. Remember the old mantra healthy body, healthy mind? Even 30 minutes of moderate, low-impact exercise 3-4 days a week can make a difference. Cardiovascular disease is often caused by lack of exercise and it can also alter brain health.
- Poor diet. A diet with too much red meat, processed foods, butter, heavy cream, other saturated fats, as well as sugar, can also impact brain health. A healthy diet with fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, olive oil, beans, and fish can reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, mitigating the risk of Alzheimer’s.
- Insomnia. Lack of sleep has clinically proven to alter levels of beta-amyloid in the brain, creating proteins that can lead to Alzheimer’s. We can protect our brains and lower our risk for Alzheimer’s by sleeping better.
- Stress. Stress and hypertension are known to be damaging on all fronts, but especially as they relate to vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s. Keep stress under control to protect against cognitive decline.
- Isolation. Being alone and reclusive, and a lack of social interaction have also proven to contribute to mental decline. Social engagement keeps the mind active and healthy.
- Lack of mental stimulation. Again, if the mind doesn’t stay active, it will atrophy. Reading, crossword puzzles, and card games can improve brain health.
- Weight issues. Health specialists insist that maintaining a healthy weight with exercise and proper diet can help prevent dementia, not to mention a myriad of other health issues!
- Smoking. Smoking is harmful to your body and your brain. Why would you do this to your body? End of discussion.
- Medical conditions. Cognitive decline has been clinically linked to vascular issues like heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and obesity. So, again, healthy body, healthy mind. Do what it takes to stay well.
Fortunately, all of these lifestyle factors can be addressed to counter the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Strategies for preventing the onset of cognitive disease will vary with every individual, but clinical research continues to indicate that healthy lifestyles can make our brains more resilient.
The Latest in Alzheimer’s and Dementia Testing
There are many tests today that can help determine whether you are at risk for Alzheimer’s or dementia. These include:
- Cognitive assessments. Medical professionals continue to refine their ability to evaluate and assess a person’s cognitive health with motor skill and mental tests.
- Brain scans. Brain imaging can also shed light on alterations in the brain that may lead to or be causing dementia.
- Blood tests. Tests can detect a protein in the blood called NfL (neurofilament light). It has proven to be an early biological marker for Alzheimer’s. Other tests can evaluate the level of amyloid and tau proteins in the blood.
- DNA testing. There are many tests available today that can detect the ApoE gene which has been associated with late-onset Alzheimer’s. Even genealogy companies like 23andMe can test for variants of the ApoE gene.
What Should I Do if My Parent is Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or Dementia
First and foremost, don’t panic. It’s not your diagnosis. Get tested so you have factual data. After getting a test you can act accordingly. Sometimes people get diagnosed with the ApoE gene and never get diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Taking preventative measures regarding diet,exercise, and mentally stimulating activities puts them in far better condition than many who don’t even have the gene.
Although there is no known way to prevent Alzheimer’s, and while we can’t change our genetic profile, we can change our lifestyle to reduce our risk.