Is Alzheimer’s hereditary?
Am I or my children more likely to develop the disease than the general population? Is there anything we can do to reduce the risk? Scientists don’t have all the answers yet. But here’s what we do know about Alzheimer’s, and here are the steps you can take to reduce the chances of developing or delay the onset of this devastating disease.
Genes do play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s. In most cases, however, having a family member with Alzheimer’s doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll inherit the disease, just as having no relatives with the disease does not guarantee that you won’t develop it.
Scientists have identified several genes that may contribute to a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Apolipoprotein E-e4, or APOE-e4, the gene with the strongest influence on the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, may be a factor in 20 to 25 percent of Alzheimer’s cases, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Someone who inherits this gene from one or both parents has an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. These genes may be detected with a blood test, but they cannot predict who will or will not develop Alzheimer’s disease.
The deterministic genes that make Alzheimer’s disease almost a certainty, and frequently cause early-onset cases, are far less common. The Alzheimer’s Association reports that deterministic genes are responsible for less than five percent of Alzheimer’s cases overall, and worldwide, have been found in only a few hundred extended families. These genes, too, can be identified through blood tests.
Your chances of developing Alzheimer’s are higher if you have immediate family members who have the disease. The risk grows according to the number of family members with Alzheimer’s: In other words, the higher the number, the greater the risk. The Alzheimer’s Association points out, however, that a high family incidence may not be genetic in nature; environmental factors may be to blame.
As with family history, there may be more than genetics at work in cases of Alzheimer’s that develops after age 60. According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), later-onset Alzheimer’s is likely caused by a combination of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors.
Even as more research is completed, scientists don’t expect they’ll ever answer the question, “Is Alzheimer’s hereditary?” with a simple yes or no. Too many other factors may play a role.
What You Can Do
There are certain risk factors contributing to the development of Alzheimer’s that are beyond your control. Age, considered the greatest one, is a good example: The risk of Alzheimer’s grows dramatically the older we get. There are, however, several risk factors you can control that may reduce your odds of developing or help postpone the onset of Alzheimer’s:
• Mind the heart-head connection: Research suggests that what’s good for your heart is also good for your brain. Your risk of developing Alzheimer’s may be increased by conditions that damage the heart or blood vessels, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes or high cholesterol. Work with your doctor to monitor and manage these issues if they affect you.
• Guard against head trauma: Growing evidence points to a strong link between serious head injury and future risk of Alzheimer’s. This is especially true with trauma that occurs repeatedly or involves loss of consciousness. Follow measures that will help protect your brain: buckle your seatbelt, wear a helmet when participating in sports, and “fall-proof” your home.
•Maintain an active mind: Staying socially connected with family and friends and keeping your brain engaged through intellectually stimulating activities are also associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s. Some researchers believe that, at a minimum, these activities help establish a “cognitive reserve” that allows older people with dementia to function more effectively for a longer period of time, even after some brain function is lost.
•Practice Healthy Habits: Exercise regularly, maintain a healthy weight, eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and avoid tobacco and excess alcohol. Any steps you can take toward healthy aging will keep both your body healthier and may protect your brain from Alzheimer’s as well as other forms of dementia.
Finally, remember the importance of early detection. If you notice signs of possible memory loss in yourself or in a loved one, consult a physician. Scientists are working on developing simple blood tests that are designed to help doctors more quickly detect Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and mild cognitive impairment. The earlier these conditions are diagnosed, the more options you may have for treatment that can help prolong your independence and cognitive health.