The Alzheimer’s Association states that Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, and that more than 5 million Americans are affected by the condition. Additionally, one out of three seniors dies of Alzheimer’s or some other type of dementia. That number will likely increase as the aging population increases.
Scientists have been researching Alzheimer’s for decades, but still there is no cure. Learn more about how genes are related to the development of Alzheimer’s, as well as other potential causes of the condition.
Alzheimer’s disease damages your brain, gradually destroying memory and thinking skills. Researchers believe that the damage begins up to a decade before symptoms appear. Abnormal deposits of proteins form hard plaques and tangles throughout the brain. These deposits interfere with normal brain function.
As they grow, plaques can interrupt communication between neurons, the messengers in your brain. Eventually these neurons die, damaging your brain so much that parts of it begin to shrink.
Alzheimer’s disease isn’t fully understood. Scientists believe that for most people, the disease has genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors. All these factors may work together to create the right conditions for the disease to take root.
There is a hereditary component to Alzheimer’s. People whose parents or siblings have the disease are at a slightly higher risk of developing the condition. However, we’re still a long way from understanding the genetic mutations that lead to the actual development of the disease.
As you get older, you become more vulnerable to the factors that can cause Alzheimer’s. In 2010, there were 4.7 million individuals aged 65 years and older with Alzheimer’s disease. Of these, 0.7 million were 65 to 74 years old, 2.3 million were 75 to 84 years old, and 1.8 million were 85 years or older.
Alzheimer’s affects more women than men. Scientists theorize this is because women generally live longer than men. As a result, women are more likely to contract the disease in their late senior years.
A 2010 study suggests that hormones might have something to do with it. The level of the female hormone estrogen decreases in a woman’s body after menopause. Researchers believe that the hormone protects the brains of young women from damage. But as levels plunge in older age, brain cells become more vulnerable to the disease.
The Alzheimer’s Association states that scientists have found a link between traumatic brain injury and a greater risk of dementia. After a traumatic injury, your brain creates large amounts of beta amyloid. This is the same protein that develops into the damaging plaques that are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s.
There’s one difference: After a traumatic brain injury, beta amyloid, although present, doesn’t clump into plaques. However, the damage may increase the risk of them doing so later in life.
People who already have mild cognitive impairment may be at an increased risk of developing full-blown Alzheimer’s. A mild cognitive impairment doesn’t necessarily impact a person’s daily life in a major way. However, it can have some effects on memory, thinking skills, visual perception, and the ability to make sound decisions.
Scientists are trying to understand why some cases of mild cognitive impairment progress into Alzheimer’s. A 2006 study shows that the presence of certain proteins in the brain, like beta amyloid, increases the risk of the disease.
Your lifestyle may have a lot to do with your likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s. Heart health in particular seems to be closely related to brain health. Eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, quitting smoking, controlling diabetes, and controlling blood pressure and cholesterol are all good for the heart. They can also keep the brain healthy and resilient.
Older adults with coronary artery disease or peripheral arterial disease have a higher risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Some research indicates that quality sleep may be important for the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. A 2013 study published in JAMA Neurology surveyed adults with an average age of 76 who hadn’t been diagnosed with the disease. Those who experienced poor or limited sleep had an increased buildup of beta amyloid plaques in their brain.
More studies need to be done. Scientists still aren’t sure whether poor sleep is a cause of Alzheimer’s or if the early stages of the disease may affect sleep. Both may be true.
How much you use your brain over the course of your life may also affect your risk of Alzheimer’s. A 2012 study reported that people who regularly stimulated their brains with challenging mental activities had fewer beta amyloid deposits. These activities were important all through life. But early and middle life efforts were associated with the biggest reduction in risk.
Higher levels of formal education, a stimulating job, mentally challenging leisure activities, and frequent social interactions may also protect brain health.