There isn’t a single known cause of Alzheimer’s disease, but there are risk factors that we’re aware of.
Broadly speaking, the risk factors fall into a few main categories, including age, genetics, and family history.
There are situational risk factors, as well. For example, a concussion is a brain injury and if you have a history of repeated brain injuries, even when they’re mild, you may be at a higher risk for Alzheimer’s.
The following are things to know about this condition and other types of dementia, and whether or not there are steps you can take to lower your risk later in life.
Understanding Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia affecting memory, thinking, and behavior. The symptoms become severe enough, progressively, that they interfere with functionality and daily tasks.
Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia. Dementia is a term for the loss of cognitive abilities and memory loss.
Around 60 to 80% of cases of dementia come from Alzheimer’s.
It’s not considered a normal part of aging, but aging is the single greatest risk factor. Most people with this condition are 65 and older, but there are hundreds of thousands of Americans who do have early-onset Alzheimer’s.
It’s a progressive condition, meaning it worsens over time. In the early stages, memory loss is typically mild.
In the late stages, someone with Alzheimer’s may not be able to have a conversation or appropriately respond to what’s happening around them.
There is no cure available, but there are treatments. There’s also ongoing research.
As we understand it currently, Alzheimer’s may prevent parts of the “cell factories” in your brain from operating the way they should. Researchers aren’t sure where the trouble begins, but the damage does spread and causes other cells to have problems functioning as they should. Then, those cells may die, leading to changes in the brain that can’t be reversed.
Alzheimer’s risk factors, along with age, are:
- High blood pressure starting in mid-life
- Smokers are 45% more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than non-smokers
- Type 2 diabetes can put you at higher risk to develop dementia
- High cholesterol
- Obesity or lack of exercise
- Poor diet that’s high in fat, sugar, and processed foods
- High alcohol consumption
- Low education levels
- Head injuries
- Hearing loss
- Social isolation
- Gender—women are at higher risk than men
While we may not be entirely able to prevent Alzheimer’s, there are things you can do to keep your brain as healthy as possible.
Reduce Your Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
There are links between poor cardiovascular health and Alzheimer’s. Many of the steps you can take to keep your heart healthy will also help your brain health.
Cardiovascular disease is linked not only with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s but also vascular dementia.
To keep your heart healthy, stop smoking if you do, and eat a balanced, healthy diet.
A healthy diet includes fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains and cold-water fish. Foods that are great for your brain include wild salmon, nuts and seeds, avocadoes, blueberries, and even dark chocolate.
Aim to exercise at a moderateintensity for at least 150 minutes a week.
When you exercise, it helps your brain grow new brain cells, which are called neurons. Exercise may help slow shrinkage of the brain linked to aging, and it can help you maintain your cognitive abilities which tend to naturally decline as you age.
When you exercise, it lowers your blood pressure. That’s important because when you have high blood pressure it can damage arteries supplying blood to the brain. That can cause stroke, and stroke can cause impairment of memory and understanding and can lead to dementia later on.
Keep your blood pressure under control as well as your diabetes if you have it.
Avoid Excess Aluminum
There’s some evidence that aluminum exposure may increase the risk of developing dementia. There have been studies linking higher levels of aluminum in the brains of people with dementia.
Aluminum can come from cookware and products like foil and beverage cans.
Aluminum is also found in the food we eat, such as processed foods, and cosmetics, and personal hygiene products.
Try to avoid this as much as you can.
Avoid Head Injuries
As you age, you may be more at risk of head injuries because your fall risk increases. Head injuries, in turn, increase the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
To lower your risk of head injuries due to falling, when you exercise, make sure you also incorporate weight or strength-training. You should also strengthen your core and if necessary, make changes to your home as you age to reduce the risk of falling.
Do Brain Exercises
Your brain needs to be used by you frequently and in different ways. We are increasingly learning that the more we exercise our brains throughout our lifetime, the more we can slow our mental decline as we age.
When you keep your brain active, it helps protect the connections between cells. It may even generate new cells.
There are a lot of ways you can keep using your brain.
For example, learn a new language, do memory exercises, read or solve puzzles. Attending plays or lectures is helpful, or you can enroll in classes at your local community college or online.
Socializing is something you always need to do to keep your brain sharp too. Even if you’re an introvert, make it a priority to socialize as much as you can.
The more time you spend with friends and family, the more you can keep your brain neurons strong.
Set aside time to see friends regularly, join a club, or volunteer. All can help you build a social network.
There’s not one specific way to prevent Alzheimer’s, at least not that we know about now. What you can do is live a healthy, balanced lifestyle and many of the things that you do as part of that are also good for the health of your brain.