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 19. 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.
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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