Lower Alzheimer’s Risk

It’s more than your genes: How lifestyle and environmental factors affect your risk of Alzheimer’s disease

Age, family history and certain genes all play a role in determining your risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Some thought-provoking statistics:

  • One in 10 people older than 65 and nearly half of people older than 85 have Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Alzheimer’s can affect people in their 40s. The percentage of people who have Alzheimer’s disease rises every decade beyond the age of 60.

Alzheimer’s disease does have an important genetic influence. Your likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease is 4 to 10 times greater if you have a first-degree relative with it than someone who has no family history of the disease. Recent research indicates that the risk is higher for people who have a mother with Alzheimer’s disease than for those who have a father or no parent with the disease. In most cases, however, the major risk factor is older age.

Stephen M. Rao, PhD, holder of the Ralph and Luci Schey Chair and Director of the Schey Center for Cognitive Neuroimaging at Cleveland Clinic, says that brain changes causing Alzheimer’s begin as much as a decade before symptoms such as memory loss emerge. His research has shown that physically active persons who are at risk for Alzheimer’s demonstrate greater degrees of brain activity than those who were relatively inactive. More recent research showed that patients with mild cognitive impairment, a condition that usually precedes an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, received a positive benefit in brain activity from exercise.

The National Institute on Aging is funding a clinical trial in which Dr. Rao and his team are comparing the effects of physical exercise and cognitive stimulation on brain activity. In this trial, one group is exercising, one is doing cognitive training using a computerized program, and a third group is doing both. All participants have a family history of Alzheimer’s, are at least 60 years old and are sedentary. The goal is to determine whether either or both of these lifestyle interventions can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s.

“In addition to physical exercise, other lifestyle factors, such as engaging in cognitively stimulating activities, may also be protective against the effects of Alzheimer’s,” says Dr. Rao. “We know that persons who continue to read, go to concerts, attend museums, play musical instruments and do crossword puzzles, to name a few, are less likely to develop the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease than people who stop participating in these cognitively enriching activities.”

Consult your physician about these and other tips for lowering your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease:

  • Remaining physically active and maintaining a healthy weight, blood pressure and cholesterol level, and avoiding diabetes can help lower risk factors for many age-related diseases.
  • Eating a diet of mostly fish, vegetables and fruits instead of red meat, processed meat, fat and sugars also can result in a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Some risk factors for cardiovascular disease also increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, so following a heart-healthy diet may be beneficial.
  • Higher levels of education may reduce the likelihood of later developing Alzheimer’s.

A firm commitment to a healthy lifestyle, including physical exercise, eating nutritious foods, being socially active with family and friends, along with that daily crossword, just might make a difference in brain health as we age.

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