Today 5.5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s. Since 2000, death rates from other major diseases have dropped, while those from Alzheimer’s have risen by 89 percent. Alzheimer’s prevention is a critical area of research, as scientists strive to learn how much we can impact Alzheimer’s risk.
Alzheimer’s results from multiple interacting factors, including age, genetics, coexisting medical conditions, environment and lifestyle. While some factors can’t be changed, new research suggests we do have control over some things that can help reduce our risk.
Alzheimer’s Prevention: Know the Risks and Act to Limit Them
The Heart–Head Connection
The risk of Alzheimer’s is higher in people with conditions that damage the heart and blood vessels, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and high cholesterol. In fact, 80 percent of people with Alzheimer’s also have cardiovascular disease.
Alzheimer’s Prevention Tip: Reducing cardiovascular risk factors may be one of the best ways to protect brain health, too. Each heartbeat pumps up to 25 percent of your blood to your brain, which then uses at least 20 percent of the food and oxygen your blood carries. Not only do a healthy diet and exercise improve heart health but they also increase the flow of blood, oxygen and nutrients to your brain. Some evidence suggests that keeping strong social connections and staying mentally active may also help the brain stay more resilient against memory loss.
Studies have shown a link between serious head trauma and Alzheimer’s risk, especially when the injury involves loss of consciousness.
Prevention: Use a helmet for sports, wear a seat belt, and add safety rails at home to protect against falls.
Growing older seems to be the largest risk factor for Alzheimer’s. The majority of people with Alzheimer’s are older than 65, and the risk doubles every five years after that age. By 85 years old, the risk of Alzheimer’s is 50 percent.
Alzheimer’s Prevention Tip: While we can’t stop aging, we can help slow its effects by eating nutritious meals, exercising and doing activities that keep us young at heart.
Genetics, environmental factors or a combination may play a role in how Alzheimer’s disease runs in families. If multiple family members have the disease, the risk for others in the family increases. Two types of genes seem to play a role in whether a person will develop Alzheimer’s. The first, risk genes, increases the likelihood of developing the disease but do not guarantee it.
The second type, deterministic genes, directly causes Alzheimer’s and virtually guarantees that the person will develop the disease. But true familial Alzheimer’s via deterministic genes accounts for less than five percent of all cases. This is why doctors don’t currently recommend genetic testing for the disease.
Alzheimer’s Prevention Tip: While familial Alzheimer’s is rare, inform your doctor of a family history of Alzheimer’s so they have it for future reference.
While every factor for Alzheimer’s disease may not be crystal clear, promising new research is underway that might shed more light on its causes. As the number of people with Alzheimer’s rises, the effort to prevent and cure it continues to gain momentum. Meanwhile, we take active steps to lower our own risk through diet, exercise, staying socially active and protecting our brains.