Most people don’t realize how much control they actually have when it comes to their risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. If one has a close family member with the disease (e.g., parent or sibling) that does influence risk. But for the average person, genetic factors contribute only about one-third of what determines their brain health.
That means that more than 50 percent of our risk for getting Alzheimer’s disease is attributed to nongenetic factors under our own control. While many people worry about mental decline as they age, quite a few have inaccurate information about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Not long ago, Tina, a middle-aged real estate agent, asked me to consult on her widowed mother. Unfortunately, Tina’s mom kept getting lost and had become increasingly reclusive over a six-month period. These kinds of symptoms could result from many different causes, ranging from medication side effects, depression, or even a malfunctioning GPS device in her car.
But Tina was concerned about the possibility of Alzheimer’s. And of course, if that was the case, Tina naturally wondered if she was destined to develop Alzheimer’s as well.
I conducted a medical history, neuropsychiatric examination, blood tests, and brain scanning on Tina’s mother. She did not appear to have Alzheimer’s, but she did have another form of dementia.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia in older adults, but many other conditions can impair mental abilities, and some are reversible. Fortunately, the form of dementia Tina’s mother was experiencing was reversible. Though memory loss seemed like
her main problem, she actually had underlying depression that was causing her cognitive decline.
The National Institutes of Health recently concluded that there was not enough scientific evidence to determine that we can prevent Alzheimer’s disease. That conclusion stirred up a good deal of controversy among experts who felt that the evidence was dismissed too quickly.
Dr. Arthur Kramer, director of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science & Technology at the University of Illinois, argued that taking antihypertensive medication, quitting smoking, and increased physical activity produce cognitive benefits in older people.
The panel conceded that studies of healthy lifestyle habits, including good diet, physical activity, and cognitive engagement, are providing new insights into the prevention of cognitive decline. But they maintain that to definitively prove these methods can prevent Alzheimer’s disease would take many more years of research.
I agree with Dr. Kramer that lifestyle strategies can delay onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms. And like most baby boomers and seniors, I don’t want to wait 20 years for some doctor to tell me I should have gotten started earlier to protect my brain.
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