Families Wonder About the Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease
June is Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month. Families who support the well-being of loved ones who are living with Alzheimer’s disease understandably wonder if they, too, are at risk of the disease.
Having a healthy heart makes it more likely that we’ll have a healthy brain. The American Heart Association (AHA) recently took a look at the genetic factors associated with Alzheimer’s disease. “Familial dementia is a strong risk factor for dementia,” said the AHA. “Having a first-degree relative such as a parent or sibling with the disease can increase a person’s risk of dementia by nearly 75% compared to someone who does not have a first-degree relative with the condition.”
The most common genetic risk factor is a variety of a certain gene, commonly called the APOE4, found in about 25% of the world’s population. If one parent has this gene, a person’s risk of Alzheimer’s is tripled. If both parents do, the risk is even higher. When a person learns they have this gene, it’s understandable that they would be concerned—but it’s important to know that having genetic risk for Alzheimer’s doesn’t necessarily mean a person will develop the disease!
This is because while some risk factors—genes, and also age—are beyond our control, we can take charge of many others. The lifestyle choices we make can make a huge difference. Numerous studies have shown that following these healthy lifestyle behaviors can dramatically lower a person’s risk of dementia, no matter what their genetic heritage:
Manage overall health. Beyond heart disease, other health conditions raise the risk of dementia. These include hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol and depression. Keeping regular health care appointments, taking medications correctly, and following our doctors’ recommendations all help control those conditions—with the bonus benefit of protecting our brain.
Get plenty of exercise. Exercise stimulates brain activity, building a more resilient brain. A study from the University of Maryland even showed that exercise “may stimulate brain plasticity and restore communication between brain regions that may have been lost through Alzheimer’s disease.” In fact, a study from McMaster University found that people who don’t exercise are just as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as people who have genetic risk! Ask your doctor to recommend an exercise program, and add extra physical activity to your life whenever you can.
Choose a brain-friendly diet. The foods we eat can help us manage all the health conditions mentioned above, as well as maintain a healthy weight—both of which are good for the brain. Fill your plate with vegetables, fruits, berries, whole grains, nuts, fish, poultry, olive oil and other healthy fats. Limit your intake of red meat, unhealthy fats, refined sugars and carbohydrates, and other processed foods. The Alzheimer’s Association reports that older adults who consistently follow this type of diet lower their risk of dementia by up to 35%. Talk to your doctor or a dietitian about a meal plan that’s right for you.
Sleep well. Good quality sleep protects the brain. It is during sleep that the brain is able to remove harmful substances that cause memory loss. Seek treatment right away for sleep disorders, and practice good sleep habits—for example, set aside enough time for sleep, create a quiet, dark sleep environment, and avoid the use of light-emitting devices, such as smartphones, at bedtime. Report sleep problems to your doctor.
Quit smoking, and limit alcohol intake. Drinking too much alcohol, and smoking any amount, are bad for the brain. Studies show smoking raises the risk of Alzheimer’s by 157%. Overusing alcohol causes shrinkage of the brain and raises the risk of head injuries. If you’re having problems controlling your drinking or quitting smoking, talk to your doctor.
Get plenty of mental stimulation. The brain isn’t a muscle, but it needs exercise. As the Alzheimer’s Association describes it, mental stimulation “increases the connections between neurons, enabling the brain to use alternate routes of neuron-to-neuron communication to complete cognitive tasks when the usual routes have neuronal gaps because of Alzheimer’s.” Formal education is protective, and it’s never too late to give your brain a workout by learning something new. Spending time with other people is also great brain stimulation. These days that’s been harder, but it’s well worth the effort.
Control stress. Prolonged stress releases an excess of the hormone cortisol into our bodies, which over time can harm the brain. If you feel that your stress is out of control, talk to your health care provider. Stress management techniques and counseling can help.
The above lifestyle choices also benefit people who currently have Alzheimer’s disease. If your loved one is living with memory loss, talk to their doctor about care options that support their needs. In many cases, a supported living environment is the best choice, where your loved one can take part in safe, appropriate activities. Alden Memory Care Communities offer a holistic approach to quality care that supports quality of life and well-being for residents.
The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your health care provider. Talk to your doctor about your own risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and about lifestyle choices that are right for you.