Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia, which is the general term for the impaired ability to remember, think, or make decisions. Alzheimer's is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States. It is characterized by memory loss and other declines in mental function. While there isn't a way to prevent Alzheimer's, research has found some things you can do to reduce your risk of developing the disease. It's not a bad idea to establish these habits anyway because they offer many other health benefits as well.
Here's what to know about the risk of developing Alzheimer's and what you can do to lower your chances.
Who Is Most at Risk?
Alzheimer’s disease affects more than five million people in the United States. Your risk of developing it goes up with age. Most people who develop this disease don’t start seeing symptoms until about age 65 years. Known as late-onset Alzheimer’s, this type is the most common form.
The other type, early-onset Alzheimer's, is less common. It affects only about 10% of people with Alzheimer's. As you may have guessed from its name, early-onset Alzheimer's occurs earlier in life than age 65. Symptoms can show up anytime between a person's 30s and mid-60s.
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While research is still ongoing in the field, genetics seems to be at least somewhat involved in both early-onset and late-onset Alzheimer's.
Genetic mutations appear to be the cause of early-onset Alzheimer’s, at least in some people. The causes of late-onset Alzheimer’s are less understood. Instead of having one cause, this form of Alzheimer’s is likely due to a combination of genetics, environmental factors, and lifestyle choices.
People with Down syndrome are more likely to develop Alzheimer's and may start to see symptoms in their 40s. Down syndrome is a genetic mutation resulting in three copies of chromosome 21 (instead of two). This chromosome is important because it is involved in the production of amyloid.
Amyloid is a protein that is found in sizeable clumps in the brain of people with Alzheimer's. These clumps are referred to as plaque. Its role may not yet be fully understood, but it is currently hypothesized that the presence of amyloid plaque is a brain change that occurs with Alzheimer's.
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How To Reduce Risk
Alzheimer's isn't something that we know how to prevent based on our current understanding of the disease. There are certain risk factors, however, that may increase a person's chance of developing it.
Unfortunately, the biggest risk factor is one we can't control: our age. Our genetic makeup is another one we don't have any say over.
While there are no promises, we may be able to reduce our risk of developing Alzheimer’s by focusing on our lifestyle and behavior. Our chance of developing Alzheimer’s decreases when we work on preventing things like heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and diabetes. We can do this by making healthy lifestyle choices.
Leading a healthy lifestyle has many many health perks—including the possibility of keeping your brain sharp as you age. Specifically, here are the things you can do, or may already be doing, to lead a healthy lifestyle and potentially reduce your risk of Alzheimer's:
- Keep high blood pressure under control: High blood pressure has harmful effects on many parts of your body, including your brain. Your blood vessels and heart will also benefit from monitoring and managing your blood pressure.
- Manage blood sugar (glucose): Consistently having high blood sugar levels can increase your risk of various diseases and conditions, including problems with memory, learning, and concentration.
- Maintain a healthy weight: It’s clear that obesity is linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other conditions. What’s not so clear is how best to measure obesity. Several studies have shown that the ratio of your waist to your height may be one of the most accurate predictors we have of obesity-related diseases.
- Follow a healthy diet: Get a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and seafood, unsaturated fats like olive oil, and low-fat or nonfat dairy products. Cut back on foods that contain other fats and sugars, including ultra-processed foods.
- Be physically active: Exercise has many health benefits beyond possible Alzheimer’s prevention. It is recommended to get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week. That could be walking and/or cycling for 30 minutes five days a week.
- Keep your mind active: You can do this by playing games such as board games or word, logic, or number puzzles. Get creative by painting, writing, sculpting, or crafting. Stimulate your mind by reading a book, learning a new skill, working or volunteering, and socializing.
- Stay connected: Isolation and loneliness can increase your risk of Alzheimer’s. Getting in touch with loved ones or joining a club or another social activity can help you maintain social connectedness.
- Get treatment for hearing problems: Not being able to hear properly may make communicating with others more difficult. You can also protect your ears from loud noises to help prevent hearing loss.
- Sleep: Sleep is super important for our bodies and our minds. Aim for seven to eight hours a night, and see a healthcare provider if you are having any problems sleeping.
- Prevent falls and head injury: Head injuries are associated with a higher chance of developing Alzheimer’s. A common cause of head injuries to older adults are falls. To reduce falls, you can fall-proof your home, wear supportive shoes with nonskid soles, and participate in fall prevention programs.
- Limit alcohol consumption: Drinking too much alcohol can lead to falls and make other health conditions worse, including memory loss. Reducing consumption to one or two drinks a day (at most) can help.
- Don’t smoke: By not smoking, you’ll improve your health by reducing your risk for serious conditions including cardiovascular disease, stroke, and some cancers. You may be less likely to get Alzheimer’s as well.
Again, there are no promises that doing any of these things will prevent you from getting Alzheimer's. If you follow these recommendations, however, you will be helping yourself out in more ways than one. That's because you'll be reducing your chances of developing many other health problems at the same time. There is no harm done by checking off as many of these boxes as you can.
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Testing and Screenings
It’s important to take care of your mental and physical health. Getting your annual physical can help you and your healthcare provider monitor your health and conduct any additional testing as needed. They can also ensure that you’re getting all the screenings that are recommended for your age and sex.
If memory problems start to appear, healthcare providers will test you to determine whether those symptoms are due to Alzheimer's or something else. They'll talk to you (and perhaps a family member) to ask about general health, medications (including supplements), diet, medical problems, ability to perform daily tasks, and changes in behavior or personality. You may be hesitant to let them talk to a family member, but your loved ones may notice changes to your routine or personality (early signs of Alzheimer's) before you do, which can provide valuable insight to your provider.
If your provider thinks that you may have Alzheimer's or another form of dementia, they may test your memory, problem-solving skills, attention, counting, and language. Standard medical tests, like blood and urine tests, can also help identify potential causes of the problem.
In some cases, healthcare providers may suggest brain scans. Medical tests like computerized tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and positron emission tomography (PET) are typically used to rule out other cognitive conditions, but can also be used to detect shrinkage that may be related to Alzheimer's disease. A special kind of PET scan called an Amyloid PET and an autopsy can be used to visualize amyloid plaques.
Discuss With Your Healthcare Provider
Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease. It starts gradually. So at first, it may be hard to tell the early symptoms of the disease apart from normal forgetfulness, for example.
Here are some of the common signs and symptoms to watch out for. Keep in mind, however, that everyone is different. Some people with Alzheimer’s show only a few of these signs. Others may have several of them.
- Having problems findings words or coming up with words compared to people of the same age
- Experiencing difficulty recognizing people and naming objects
- Having vision and spatial problems; getting lost or becoming confused even in a familiar setting
- Showing poor reasoning or judgment, which can affect decision-making skills
- Having difficulty managing money and paying bills
- Taking longer than usual to complete normal daily tasks
- Repeatedly asking the same questions
- Wandering and getting lost, even in places you're familiar with such as your neighborhood or the grocery store
- Misplacing things or putting them in odd places
- Displaying changes in mood and personality, including showing increased anxiety and/or aggression
Getting treatment as early as possible is especially important. A number of other conditions can cause the same symptoms as Alzheimer's. If detected early enough, some of these conditions can be reversed.
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A Quick Review
Characterized by memory loss and other cognitive decline, Alzheimer's is a disease that usually occurs around age 65 years. Although less common, it can also occur in a person's 30s or later. Unfortunately, the biggest risk factor—age—is something that you can't control.
You may be able to reduce your chances of developing Alzheimer's by leading a healthy lifestyle, even if genetic factors put you at higher risk. Establishing healthy habits will also lower your risk of other conditions, like cardiovascular disease, stroke, and diabetes.
If you have concerns that you or someone else may be showing signs of Alzheimer's, talk to a healthcare provider. Healthcare providers can run tests to determine what's causing the symptoms and provide appropriate treatment.