Risk factors for Alzheimer’s, other dementias

By Barbara Pierce

We don’t know much about the causes of Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers believe there is no one single cause. It likely develops from multiple causes, such as age, genetics, lifestyle and environment, explained Kristen Campbell, director of programs and services, Alzheimer’s Association, Central New York Chapter.

Age is the biggest risk factor, she said. While age increases risk, it is not a direct cause of Alzheimer’s. Most individuals with the disease are 65 and older. After age 65, the risk doubles every five years. After age 85, the risk reaches nearly one-third.

Scientists have identified other factors that increase the risk of Alzheimer’s. While risk factors like age and heredity can’t be changed, and Alzheimer’s and other dementias are not preventable, you can reduce your risk by treating and managing these medical conditions, advised Campbell.

— Heart conditions: The first risk factor is heart conditions.

“What’s good for your heart health is good for your brain health,” stressed Campbell. Strong evidence links brain health to heart health.

This makes sense, because the brain is nourished by one of the body’s richest networks of blood vessels, and the heart is responsible for pumping blood through these blood vessels to the brain.

When they occur as early as in adolescence, heart health risk factors — like high blood pressure, diabetes and being overweight — can influence late-life memory and cognition, especially in African Americans.

— Obesity: Being overweight in early adulthood increases the risk of dementia.

Nearly two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Excess weight is a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and other cardiovascular problems — all of which increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive problems.

If you’re overweight, not physically active, and have the gene that predisposes you to Alzheimer’s, you’re going to have a higher probability of developing it, say experts. Increasing your physical activity and losing even a small amount of weight can help reduce your risk factors.

— High blood pressure: Anything related to blood flow, like high blood pressure, can be a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. High blood pressure may damage the small blood vessels that supply brain cells with oxygen.

Have your blood pressure checked regularly. Your doctor can recommend lifestyle changes and medications that are an excellent way to help reduce your numbers.

— Type 2 diabetes: The link between Type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s is fairly strong for many reasons. Controlling the high blood sugar associated with Type 2 diabetes through diet, lifestyle changes and medication will lower your risk.

— Hearing loss: Hearing loss doesn’t appear to cause the physical brain changes that are characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease, but may be responsible for — and accelerate — dementia, which could make Alzheimer’s symptoms even more severe. Research found that the worse someone’s hearing loss was, the more likely they were to develop dementia.

— Depression and anxiety: Evidence shows depression and anxiety may be risk factors. Because these mood disorders can elevate levels of the stress hormone cortisol, one theory is that chronically high levels of cortisol can damage the brain.

Interestingly, antidepressant medications are being researched as a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s. Some antidepressants have anti-amyloid (a protein associated with Alzheimer’s) properties.

— Hypothyroidism: Having an underactive thyroid gland — older women have the highest risk — may not cause Alzheimer’s disease, but it can lead to memory problems that may accelerate the symptoms of dementia. Common symptoms of thyroid trouble are fatigue, weight gain, constipation, and sensitivity to cold. Thyroid treatment is effective so don’t hesitate to see your doctor about any symptoms.

— Sleep apnea: People who have sleep apnea can stop breathing numerous times throughout the night, disrupting oxygen flow to the brain and other organs.

One study found that older people with sleep apnea had much higher levels of amyloid-beta, the protein involved in plaque buildup in the brain. Another study found that people with irregular breathing during sleep showed signs of developing Alzheimer’s at an earlier age. Researchers believe that treating sleep problems could help prevent or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

— Gum disease: Gingivitis and periodontitis — gum disease — indicate the buildup of harmful bacteria in your mouth, and they’re mobile. These bacteria can travel to the heart and brain and cause inflammation. Gum disease is extremely common; nearly half of all American adults have some form of it. Fortunately, it’s also easy to prevent and treat. Be religious about flossing, get regular teeth cleanings and check-ups every six months.

— Vitamin deficiencies: Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause cognitive impairment. It is seen in people who chronically use drugs that help reduce stomach acid. Talk to your doctor about your diet, your prescriptions, and your risk of deficiency; blood tests can spot trouble.

“It’s so important to work with your doctor to monitor and treat any health problems,” Campbell said. You can also look into an assisted living facility or a memory care community if you or your elderly relatives are showing signs of dementia.