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Is Alzheimer's inherited?

The keynote speaker at a recent Alzheimer’s Association conference had just wrapped up his presentation and asked for questions when a caregiver rushed to the microphone, “Doctor, am I going to get Alzheimer’s disease too?” she asked worriedly.

For caregivers and family members, this question looms large. Forget a familiar name or appointment, make a mistake in a bank account, or burn something on the stove, and you ask yourself, “Is this it? Has my Alzheimer’s started?”

Don’t panic. While some types of Alzheimer’s may be more likely to be inherited than others, dementia expert David Troxel thinks our stress-filled, multi-tasking culture almost encourages forgetfulness: “We depend upon our smart phones to remind us of appointments, our cell phones are automatically programmed to dial a number, and our GPS systems take us where we want to go without much thinking.”

While many people are becoming a bit more forgetful because they aren’t exercising their brains, Troxel affirms that periodic memory lapses aren’t usually a sign of early Alzheimer’s, particularly in younger persons.

So, are you more likely to get Alzheimer’s if one of your parents have the disease? Here is a summary of the current thinking about the inheritability of Alzheimer’s.

Early-onset Alzheimer’s may be more inheritable

Alzheimer’s disease does run in some families, particularly in early onset cases in which someone gets the disease well before the age of 65. Fortunately, these devastating cases represent less than 5 percent of all diagnoses. If you have a parent or sibling in this situation, you may want to get him or her evaluated at a university research center. You may also want to undergo genetic testing yourself to better understand your family situation.

Later-onset Alzheimer’s is less inheritable

If you have a relative whose Alzheimer’s disease begins well after the age of 65, you probably only have a slight increase in risk, if any. This is good news for most family members, since late-onset dementia is by far the most common form of the disease. Families will often express concern that many of their elderly relatives experienced Alzheimer’s disease. They worry that it must run in the family since “four of my five uncles had dementia.” Troxel offers some reassuring words of advice, “Remember, almost half of all elders will develop dementia. This family’s experience might just reflect the average variations in percentages that impact us all.”

Assessing your risk

If you still want to assess your risk, you can talk with your physician about genetic testing. The most common test looks at a gene called APOE (apolipoprotein E) found on Chromosome 29. You receive one gene from your mother and one from your father. The test reveals whether you have an APOE 2, 3 or 4 from your mother and your father. A 2/2 combination seems to actually protect the brain; an APOE 4/4 greatly increases your risk.

Most medial professionals discourage blanket genetic testing, at least in its current form. An APOE test demonstrates risk but is not definitive. It will also not tell you when you will get Alzheimer’s—at 70, 80 or 95. This makes the information hard to use on a practical basis.

Prevention

While the evidence is not definitive, getting plenty of exercise, not smoking, controlling weight, eating a heart-friendly diet, and staying socially and intellectually active may help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, or may even prevent it. If you have experienced Alzheimer’s disease in your family, take these positive wellness steps. They cannot hurt you but may help quite a bit!

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Thoughts and stories from others

  1. May 14, 2016 at 11:59 pm
    Posted by Abby Mallard

    Hello my mother had Alzheimer, after we moved from Virginia Beach to Chesapeake Va , talk to my second oldest Sister, I decided to put my job on the back burner, my husband and i took care of mom with help from sister she was really sweet mother never gave me a hard time, we took care of her twenty four a day seven days a week 365 days a years I don't regret doing thins, I have nerve Damage in my ears took care of me with 6 other children, I was the youngest child it was my duty to take care of her. My niece was very attach to mom she go up to cemetery talk to my mom,
  2. April 17, 2016 at 01:07 pm
    Posted by Paula

    My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in his early 60's - his father and grandfather had Alzheimer's but was diagnosed until their late 60's, early 70's my dad's oldest sister was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in her late 60's. My dad is now 77 and is in the moderate to severe stage. He doesn't recognize me or my other siblings until we tell him our names. Sometimes that doesn't trigger his memory of us. My mother's side of the family only a few have had this disease. I'm now 60 years old and am concerned because Alzheimer's seems to run in my family.
  3. April 13, 2016 at 12:54 pm
    Posted by Judy Crombar

    I'm 55 yrs. old and very concerned about getting the dementia. My mom just passed at age 89 with end stage dementia. Mom began showing signs of cognitive trouble over 20 years ago. Hers progressed very slowly and very long. I'm concerned because i struggle to retrieve words i want to say. My concentration seems affected as well. Is there help for me?
  4. January 14, 2016 at 12:47 am
    Posted by Cynthia Almudevar

    My father was diagnosed with Alzheimers at 74 and died at 80 in a locked nursing home faciliity. My mother was diagnosed at 85 and died at 90 in the same alzheimers unit. Yesterday I heard that my brothers sister, who is 75, was just diagnosed with it. Of course I am worried about what my future holds...I am 57. I run every day and eat a very healthy diet. I have never been overweight. But this possibility hangs over me.
  5. January 4, 2016 at 01:24 pm
    Posted by Valerie Buster

    I'm 54 and also suffered with "brain fog". I'm also ADD which added to the confusion. My dr suggested seeing my gyn for an assessment. I started on a progesterone /estrogen prescription that has made a world of difference for me. Before jumping to the hereditary conclusion (which I was beginning to do), check all your options. I hope you get pleasantly surprised!

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