The 3 Known Risk Factors for Alzheimer’s Disease

A specific cause of Alzheimer’s disease has yet to be uncovered. But medical research is finding increasing evidence that suggests that living a healthier lifestyle may reduce your risk of getting this dreaded disease that impairs memory, thinking and behavior.

In general, researchers believe Alzheimer’s occurs because of damage to brain cells – particularly those involved in memory – and the connections by which the cells communicate with each other.

Although there is no single cause of Alzheimer's, there are three categories of risk factors for the disease, says neuropsychiatrist Brian Appleby, MD. They include:

  • Age – “Age is, by far, the biggest risk factor,” Dr. Appleby says. “As we get older, the proteins in our brains clump up and interfere with the cells and their ability to communicate.”
    One in nine people age 65 or older has Alzheimer's disease, while almost one in three people age 85 or older has the disease.
  • Genetics – Genetics can also make some people more likely than others to get Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. Appleby says. Genetic factors come in two types: gene mutations that cause a disease and risk genes.
    “Mutations only cause about 1 percent of the cases,” he says. “A more common genetic variable is a particular risk gene, APOE-e4. Carrying one copy of that gene increases your risk two- to threefold. If you have two copies each from your mom and dad, it increases your risk by six- to nine-fold. But there is no magic bullet underlying the genetics. About half the people with Alzheimer’s don’t even have this gene.”
  • Lifestyle – “Lifestyle is the risk factor that can be controllable,” Dr. Appleby says. “Smoking, alcohol abuse and conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity all are things that increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.”
    In addition to common-sense precautions, like a healthy diet and regular exercise, Dr. Appleby says “brain exercise” also can help delay or prevent the disease.

Use Your Brain

Just like your muscles, using your brain tends to make it healthier, Dr. Appleby says.

"Keeping it active keeps the communication pathways active. A lack of sensory stimuli can increase memory loss. Research done here at University Hospitals shows that if you remove people's cataracts, for example, their memory actually gets a little better,' he says.

That's why social interaction seems to be very important in reducing Alzheimer’s risk, he says.

“Introverted people tend to be at a little higher risk,” he says. “We encourage people to do at least one social activity every week, such as volunteering or getting involved with a church group. People should be actively engaged in activities like reading and having conversations. A passive activity like watching TV doesn’t count.”

Healthy Living Can Help

A greater awareness of living healthy may have an impact on Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. Appleby says.

As with most diseases, eating right and getting exercise can reduce your likelihood of getting Alzheimer’s, he says. At the same time, there remains much unknown about the disease.

“There are factors that predispose some people to get Alzheimer’s," he says. "Sometimes it can be prevented or delayed by addressing those factors, but sometimes it seems to be the luck of the draw.

Overall, the number of people with the disease is increasing, but that may be because the average age of our population is rising, he says.

“The actual number of new cases per age group is going down, which may be due to managing of controllable risk factors.”

Brian Appleby, MD is a neuropsychiatrist at University Hospitals. You can request an appointment with Dr. Appleby or any other University Hospitals doctor online.

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