Alzheimer's art

How do you assess the risk of Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is the only disease in the top 10 causes of death in the United States that cannot be prevented, slowed, or cured. It is not fully understood what causes the disease, but probable causes could be linked to age-related changes in the brain, along with genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s disease is thought to begin 20 years or more before symptoms arise. It starts with changes in the brain that are unnoticeable to the person affected. Only after years of brain changes do individuals experience noticeable symptoms such as memory loss and language problems. Symptoms occur because nerve cells (neurons) in parts of the brain involved in thinking, learning and memory (cognitive function) have been damaged or destroyed.

Age is the greatest risk factor of Alzheimer’s disease as the number of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease doubles approximately every five years beyond the age of 65 and about one-third of those age 85 years old and older may have Alzheimer’s disease. Age-related changes in the brain include atrophy of certain parts of the brain, inflammation, vascular damage, production of unstable molecules called free radicals, and the breakdown of energy within cells. It is important to note that age is not the only risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease as many individuals live in their 90s and beyond without ever developing the disease. Additionally, Alzheimer’s can develop in those under the age of 65, called younger onset, which affects over 200,000 annually in the U.S.

Another risk factor of the disease involves genetics. Scientists have identified that one genetic risk factor is the gene, apolipoprotein, or APOE gene on chromosome 19. The APOE e4 gene specifically increases an individual’s risk of developing the disease, though it does not mean that an inherited APOEe4 gene will definitely lead to Alzheimer’s, as some individuals with the gene never develop the disease and still others who do get the disease do not show any APOEe4 genes.

Beyond genetics, researchers suggest that other factors, such as health, environmental, and lifestyle influences, play a role in the development and the course of the disease. Many studies surround the relationship between cognitive decline and vascular conditions, such as heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure, as well as metabolic conditions such as diabetes and obesity. The rule of thumb for reducing the risk of the disease is that what is good for the heart is good for the brain. A nutritious and balanced diet, regular physical

exercise, the right amount of sleep, staying socially engaged and pursuing new and mentally stimulating activities have all been associated with helping people stay heart and brain healthy as they age.

Additional studies have linked higher levels of education with a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s, and there are also differences in risks among racial groups and sexes, all which continue to be studied to better understand the causes of the disease and to develop effective treatments and preventions.

Questions about Alzheimer's Disease or related disorders can be sent to Dana Territo, author of the upcoming book "What My Grandchildren Taught Me About Alzheimer's Disease," at