Know Your Risk Factors for Alzheimer’s Disease

If carrying a specific gene variant added a substantial risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease when regularly eating a high sugar & saturated fat Western diet, would you use this knowledge to change your food choices?

If knowing that a medical history of multiple concussions more than doubled the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia, would it influence a family’s choice to allow their children to participate in high risk contact sports?

The fact is everyone can make choices that will either increase or decrease risk of Alzheimer’s down the road.

Lower Your Risk for Alzheimer’s Disease

A growing body of neuroscience research evidence points to a series of concrete steps that can be taken now to reduce the chances of developing Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia later in life.

Most of these steps focus on day-to-day lifestyle decisions that we can act on now:

Modifiable Risk Factors for Alzheimer’s Disease

Risk Factor: High Fat/High Sugar Diet

High Saturated Fat/High Sugar Diet

1. Western Diet, aka Fast Food Diet

Diets containing high levels of saturated fat and processed sugar lead to diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease, hypertension, and obesity, all individual risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s. Think KFC, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, grocery frozen dinners as typical fast food sources.

A “Mediterranean diet” rich in fish, olive oil, fresh vegetables, fruit, nuts, low fat dairy, and moderate alcohol use supports a healthy brain, and can achieve a measurable reduction in dementia and heart disease risk. See the Mind Diet guidelines for further detail.


Concussion & Head Injury

2. Concussions and Head Injuries

Concussive head injuries that result in loss of consciousness or post injury amnesia at least double the risk of Alzheimer’s or dementia later in life. American football and soccer among the team sports that can cause multiple concussions during a playing season. Female soccer players are at heightened risk from sustaining multiple head injuries.

Note that helmets do *not* prevent damage to brain tissue (axons and neurons) from serious concussions.


Chronic Sleep Problems

Chronic Sleep Problems

3. Chronic Sleep Disruption

Over 70 Million people in the U.S. suffer from bouts of insomnia over the course of a year, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Chronically restricted & disrupted sleep elevate stress hormones, which can lead to cardiovascular disease risk and stress related brain disorders.

A good night’s sleep promotes brain health by clearing away toxic amyloid beta protein, one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s. For more tips, read the Five Key Habits for Better Sleep.


Get off the Couch!

Get off the Couch!

4. Couch Potato vs. Regular Exercise

Regular physical exercise is the best prescription for brain health and cardiovascular health. Exercise encourages growth of new nerve cells and brain blood vessels, though increased production of neurotrophins such as BDNF and IGF-1.

Note that a 20 minute walk in the morning and again in the evening qualifies as basic exercise – no need to run a 10K every week. The key here is to turn exercise into part of your daily routine.


Four Chronic Health Problems

Four Chronic Health Problems

5. Chronic Health Conditions

Hypertension, Diabetes, Heart Disease, High Cholesterol can wreak havoc in your body and brain. Use the steps described above to avoid these conditions in the first place. If you already have one or more of these conditions, follow best health practices for controlling and treating the condition.

Of special note: uncontrolled hypertension in midlife is strongly associated with an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s and/or vascular dementia.


Non-Modifiable Risk Factors for Alzheimer’s Disease


After age 65, the risk of Alzheimer’s doubles about every five years. By age 85, the risk of Alzheimer’s is 1 in 3, or 33%. A recent and promising note: the overall risk for Alzheimer’s after age 65 is trending down slightly, due to better management of hypertension and high cholesterol.


The Apolipoprotein E (APOE) gene has the clearest link to developing late onset Alzheimer’s (after age 65). There are three variants of this gene: E2, E3, E4. The E3 variant has no influence on Alzheimer’s risk, while the E2 variant seems to confer some protection against Alzheimer’s. The E4 variant appears to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and is involved in a substantially elevated risk for carriers who consume a high saturated fat diet.

“Genetic Risk Scores” for a variety of neurological diseases is an emerging concept in medical science, and is expected to gain considerable traction in the coming decade. See this article for a recent study on multiple genes that may play a role in developing Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.

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