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 everyone’s situation is different, 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 disease, 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 disease.
While dementia is not a normal part of aging, age is one of the greatest known risk factors for Alzheimer’s and other dementias. As a person’s age increases, so does their risk of Alzheimer’s disease. People under the age of 65 can develop early-onset Alzheimer’s, but most individuals with the disease are age 65 and older. The risk of Alzheimer’s disease after age 65, doubles every five years. After a person reaches age 85, the risk is nearly one-third.
Family history is another strong risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. When considering the family tree, people who have lost a parent, brother or sister with Alzheimer’s are at a higher risk of developing the disease. If more than one family member has had Alzheimer’s, the risk increases. Heredity (genetics), environmental factors, or both, may play a role if the diseases tends to run in the family.
There are two categories of genes that influence if a person develops Alzheimer’s disease. One type of gene increases the risk that a person might develop the disease but does not guarantee it will happen. The other rare type of gene (which only impacts about 1% of Alzheimer’s cases) directly causes the disease.
Other Risk Factors
While we cannot change our age, family history or heredity, researchers are learning that there are things that can be done to influence our risk for dementia. This includes lifestyle and wellness choices, proper management of health conditions (especially diabetes and heart related conditions), and protecting our heads from injury.
Assessing your risk
If you still want to assess your risk, you can talk with your physician. Be sure to explain your family history and discuss lifestyle changes that can reduce risk. In some cases, genetic testing may be an option, however, most medial professionals discourage blanket genetic testing, at least in its current form.
Researchers are learning that there are lifestyle modifications that can help to reduce the risk of dementia. Be sure to get plenty of exercise, stop or quit smoking, control weight, eat a heart-friendly diet, and staying socially and intellectually active. 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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