Increasing age is the greatest known risk factor for Alzheimer's. Alzheimer's is not a part of normal aging, but your risk increases greatly after you reach age 65. Nearly half of those older than age 85 have Alzheimer's.
People with rare genetic changes that virtually guarantee they'll develop Alzheimer's begin experiencing symptoms as early as their 30s.
Family history and genetics
Your risk of developing Alzheimer's appears to be somewhat higher if a first-degree relative — your parent or sibling — has the disease. Scientists have identified rare changes (mutations) in three genes that virtually guarantee a person who inherits them will develop Alzheimer's. But these mutations account for less than 5 percent of Alzheimer's disease.
Most genetic mechanisms of Alzheimer's among families remain largely unexplained. The strongest risk gene researchers have found so far is apolipoprotein e4 (APOE e4). Other risk genes have been identified but not conclusively confirmed.
Women may be more likely than are men to develop Alzheimer's disease, in part because they live longer.
Mild cognitive impairment
People with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) have memory problems or other symptoms of cognitive decline that are worse than might be expected for their age, but not severe enough to be diagnosed as dementia.
Those with MCI have an increased risk — but not a certainty — of later developing dementia. Taking action to develop a healthy lifestyle and strategies to compensate for memory loss at this stage may help delay or prevent the progression to dementia.
Past head trauma
People who've had a severe head trauma or repeated head trauma appear to have a greater risk of Alzheimer's disease.
Lifestyle and heart health
There's no lifestyle factor that's been conclusively shown to reduce your risk of Alzheimer's disease.
However, some evidence suggests that the same factors that put you at risk of heart disease also may increase the chance that you'll develop Alzheimer's. Examples include:
- Lack of exercise
- High blood pressure
- High blood cholesterol
- Elevated homocysteine levels
- Poorly controlled diabetes
- A diet lacking in fruits and vegetables
These risk factors are also linked to vascular dementia, a type of dementia caused by damaged blood vessels in the brain. Working with your health care team on a plan to control these factors will help protect your heart — and may also help reduce your risk of Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia.
Lifelong learning and social engagement
Studies have found an association between lifelong involvement in mentally and socially stimulating activities and reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease.
Factors that may reduce your risk of Alzheimer's include:
- Higher levels of formal education
- A stimulating job
- Mentally challenging leisure activities, such as reading, playing games or playing a musical instrument
- Frequent social interactions
Scientists can't yet explain this link. One theory is that using your brain develops more cell-to-cell connections, which protects your brain against the impact of Alzheimer-related changes.
June 17, 2014
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- Smith GE (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. April 19, 2014.
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