Alzheimer's Disease Risk Factors

Written by Wendy Leonard, MPH | Published on August 29, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, MBA on August 29, 2014

Alzheimer’s Disease Risks

Nobody knows for sure whether they will eventually develop Alzheimer’s disease, the leading cause of dementia. But certain factors increase your likelihood of developing this incurable disease. You can control some factors my making different lifestyle choices. Talk to your doctor about what you can do to lower your risk.

Age

The longer you live, the more likely you are to develop Alzheimer’s. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, most people with Alzheimer’s are over 65 years of age. After that age, your chances of developing the disease double every five years. Almost half of people over 85 have Alzheimer’s. Since this is the fastest growing age group, the incidence of Alzheimer’s will likely increase.

Gender

Women outnumber men when it comes to Alzheimer’s. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, a woman’s risk of getting the disease is 1.5 to 3 times higher than a man’s. Odds increase after menopause. Since women typically live longer than men, and the occurrence of Alzheimer’s increases with age, this could also be a factor.

Genes

Researchers have found two classes of genes related to Alzheimer’s. Deterministic genes guarantee that people will develop the disease if they live long enough. Usually people with deterministic genes will develop Alzheimer’s in their thirties, forties, or fifties. According to the Mayo Clinic, only about 5 percent of people with Alzheimer’s fall into this category.

People with risk genes may or may not develop the disease, but are more likely to than people without these genes. The gene that’s most commonly correlated with Alzheimer’s is called apolipoprotein E-e4 (APOE-e4).

Head Trauma

People who have had serious head injuries are at higher risk for Alzheimer’s. Their risk increases if the injury involves losing consciousness or happens repeatedly, such as in contact sports. Wearing a football or bike helmet and fastening your seat belt may help you prevent head trauma.

Brain Abnormalities

Scientists have identified brain abnormalities in people who are likely to later develop Alzheimer’s. One is the presence of tiny clumps of protein (plaques). The other is twisted protein strands (tangles). Inflammation, tissue shrinkage, and loss of connection between brain cells are other clues that Alzheimer’s may develop.

Family History

Alzheimer’s tends to run in the family. If you have a parent, sibling, or child with the disease, you’re more likely to develop it yourself. Your risk goes up more if multiple family members have Alzheimer’s. This could be due to genes, lifestyle factors, or a combination of both.

The gene APOE ε4 plays a role here, too. APOE ε4 coupled with a family history of the disease significantly increases your risk.

Smoking

Researchers have identified smoking as a risk factor for Alzheimer’s. An article published in the American Journal of Epidemiology examined 19 previous studies. Researchers concluded that current smokers were more likely to develop Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia than those who had never smoked.

High Blood Pressure

Having high blood pressure may increase your risk for developing Alzheimer’s. Researchers have found an especially strong correlation between high blood pressure at middle age and the chances of later developing the disease.

Obesity

Being overweight can double your risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Obesity, or a body mass index of more than 30, triples your risk.

Limited Physical Activity

Lack of exercise can make you more prone to dementia. If you exercise at least twice a week during midlife, you might lower your chances of getting Alzheimer’s in your senior years.

Lack of Mental Activity

Mental activity might be as important as physical activity for decreasing your risk. Mental challenges include:

  • getting a higher education
  • playing a musical instrument
  • working in an interesting job
  • playing games or doing puzzles
  • reading

These mental challenges may help keep your cognitive functions healthy. Social interaction also helps. The key is to pick activities that challenge you. Researchers aren’t sure why this works. One theory is that your brain develops more internal connections through these challenges, which protect against dementia.

Poor Diet

People who eat few fruits and vegetables may have a higher incidence of Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

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