Is Alzheimer’s disease preventable? It’s a question many ask but few seem to get a straight answer to. That’s probably because the answer is just as vague as the exact cause of the disease. Depending on who you ask, you’re likely to hear one of three responses: “No,” “well, maybe,” and “we don’t know.” Since 2000, death rates from other major diseases have dropped while Alzheimer’s has risen by 66%. With 5.4 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s, you’d think we might have pinpointed an exact cause as well as an answer about prevention by now, but the sad truth is we haven’t. So, what DO we know about Alzheimer’s risk factors and prevention?
We do know Alzheimer’s results from a series of complex interactions among multiple factors – age, genetics, coexisting medical conditions and environment and lifestyle. The multiple factors involved are in part why it is so difficult for scientists to isolate a specific cause of the disease. However, it’s obvious there are some factors that simply cannot be changed. On the other hand, new research is suggesting that paying attention to the other factors could possibly reduce your risk of developing the disease.
Risk Factors & Prevention
Heart – Head Connection
With 80% of individuals with Alzheimer’s also having cardiovascular disease, it’s hard to deny the heart-head connection. It is apparent that the risk appears to increase in those with conditions that damage the heart and blood vessels, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and high cholesterol.
Preventative Measures: It goes without saying, but I’ll say it – controlling cardiovascular risk factors may be the absolute best and most cost-effective method for protecting your brain health and preventing Alzheimer’s disease. Each heartbeat pumps 20-25% of your blood to your brain that in turn uses at least 20% of the food and oxygen your blood carries. Therefore, eating a healthy diet and exercising is the best way to increase blood and oxygen flow to your brain.
There is also some evidence to suggest that maintaining strong social connections and staying mentally active may be a preventative measure. Scientists hypothesize that the direct mechanisms occurring from social and mental simulation help protect the brain.
Studies have shown a link between serious head trauma and future risk of Alzheimer’s. Risk is especially increased when the injury involves loss of consciousness.
Preventative Measures: Use a helmet when participating in sports, wear a seat belt, and ‘fall-proof’ your home.
The largest risk factor is advancing in age. The majority of individuals with Alzheimer’s are age 65 or older and the risk doubles every five years after the age of 65, with a 50% risk after the age of 85. Why the risk rises so drastically as we advance in age is one of the biggest mysteries of Alzheimer’s disease.
Preventative Measures: Obviously, there is absolutely nothing we can do to prevent ourselves from aging. It happens every second of the day…as it should. I’m not sure any of us truly want to be immortal.
Genetics, environmental factors, or a combination of both may play a role in how diseases run in families. The same rings true for those who have a parent, brother, sister or child with Alzheimer’s. The risk increases even more if more than one family member has the disease. Scientists have identified risk and deterministic genes that play a role in affecting whether or not a person develops Alzheimer’s. Risk genes do not guarantee that you will develop the disease, but they increase the likelihood that you will. Deterministic genes directly cause a disease and thus guarantee that you will develop the disease if you carry those genes. True familial Alzheimer’s accounts for less than 5% of cases, which is why health professionals do not currently recommend routine genetic testing for Alzheimer’s disease until more gene research results are available.
Preventative Measures: We can’t control our genetics or the environment in which we were raised, but keeping your doctor informed of your family history of Alzheimer’s could prove to be a big help in ruling out other conditions in the future.
While research still may not be crystal clear on every factor, the good news is that promising new research is under way which might soon help in both areas. As the number of people with Alzheimer’s continues to rise, the effort to find prevention and a cure continues to gain momentum. In the meantime, all we can do is patiently wait and take active steps to lower our own risks through diet, exercise, staying socially active, and protecting our noggins.
For more information about Alzheimer’s disease, visit www.alz.org.
Research & Community Education