September is World Alzheimer’s Month – an important opportunity to learn more about the most common form of dementia that affects an estimated 44 million people around the globe. Closer to home, more than 5.8 million people are living with this disease in the U.S, and millions more live in fear of getting that diagnosis. But Alzheimer’s doesn’t just rob your memory, it is also the sixth leading cause of adult deaths in the United States, killing more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of Americans affected by Alzheimer’s is projected to triple by 2050. In Santa Clara County alone, more than 30,000 people are estimated to be suffering from Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia and that number is expected to increase to nearly 60,000 by 2030.
Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease that affects parts of the brain responsible for memory and thinking skills. It’s caused by accumulations of protein in the brain that make it difficult for neurons to function—eventually destroying them. This brain damage begins years before outward symptoms develop. One of the first warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease is memory problems that may include getting lost, repeating questions, or misplacing objects.
Understanding Alzheimer’s disease has been a challenge for more than 50 years, but more recent research has started to shed a lot more light on causes and risk factors. The biggest risk factor for developing the disease is aging. Most people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease are 65 or older, and the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s nearly doubles every five years after age 65. Younger individuals can develop this disease as well. Approximately 200,000 Americans under the age of 65 have early-onset Alzheimer’s.
However, age alone doesn’t cause Alzheimer’s. The disease most likely develops due to a complex combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. Additional risk factors can include:
- Family History: Research shows that those who have a close family member with Alzheimer’s—such as a parent, sibling, or child—are more likely to develop the disease as well.
- Diabetes and Insulin Resistance: While the connection between diabetes and Alzheimer’s isn’t fully understood, it’s clear that those with diabetes, particularly type 2 diabetes, have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, possibly due to problems with blood sugar control.
- Genetics: Scientists have discovered certain genes that, if possessed, increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
- Head Injury: Studies show that serious, repeated head trauma may increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s later in life.
- Heart Health: Health conditions that damage the heart or blood vessels—such as high blood pressure or heart disease—may increase your risk of Alzheimer’s, as blood pumped to the brain provides necessary oxygen and nutrients.
More large-scale studies on the causes of Alzheimer’s are needed to better understand how to prevent this disease, however, there are steps and lifestyle changes you can make to help lower your risk:
Challenge your brain. Studies suggest a strong link between mental stimulation and brain health. Participating in intellectual activities like solving a puzzle or learning a new language will help improve memory, and may lower your risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
Choose mindful entertainment. Instead of binging on Netflix, try listening to podcasts or joining a book club. A little “mindless” entertainment is fine, but spending your days in quarantine watching TV is a bad habit that won’t age well.
Stay physically active. Evidence suggests that the cardiovascular benefits of regular exercise can benefit your brain health as well. By increasing blood and oxygen flow to your brain, physical activity helps your brain to stay healthy. Try to get out and take a walk or ride a bike every day. It’s good for your heart, mind, and soul!
Protect yourself from head trauma. Take preventative measures to avoid head injury, which may increase your risk of later developing Alzheimer’s. Be sure to wear a seat belt while driving, and wear a helmet when participating in physical activities like riding a bike.
Maintain regular check-ups. Managing chronic conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes is critical. Talk to your doctor about lifestyle changes that can help you keep your body and brain healthy.
While research is not yet definitive on the causes of Alzheimer’s, you can take steps to help prevent it. Take time this month to learn more about Alzheimer’s and what you can do to keep your brain healthy.
This article first appeared in the September 2020 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.