What Are Alzheimer’s Causes and Keys to Prevention

There are currently 6.5 million Americans living with Alzheimer's disease. Unfortunately, there is no proven way to prevent Alzheimer’s. However, knowing the common causes and taking steps to avoid or delay onset may reduce your chances of developing the disease. You cannot change risk factors such as age, family history, or genetics. Others – such as a sedentary lifestyle, hearing loss, or brain injury – are modifiable or even avoidable. In addition, awareness and early identification of a cognitive deficit may lead to prompt treatment and improved quality of life.

Key takeaways:
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    Alzheimer’s disease has several contributing causes modifiable to prevent or delay onset.
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    Exercising your mind, and learning a new skill, will enhance cognition. Conversely, passive activities such as watching television can contribute to cognitive decline.
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    Untreated depression increases your risk of developing Alzheimer’s in the future.
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    Socialization and engagement can prevent loneliness and depression, thereby reducing the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in later life.
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    Live with safety in mind. Protect yourself from falls and wear a helmet if you choose to participate in risky activity.

What is Alzheimer's disease?

Alzheimer's is the most predominant type of dementia, and there is currently no known cure. Abnormal levels of a naturally-occurring Beta-amyloid protein build up in the brain of someone with Alzheimer's. In addition, another protein called Tau abnormally forms tangles inside neurons. Alzheimer's disease occurs when these two protein abnormalities disrupt nerve conduction, impairing memory, language, and functional abilities.

Contributing causes

Age

Short-term memory loss is not uncommon as we age, but this does not mean you have Alzheimer’s. The risk of developing the disease does increase as we age. According to the National Institute on Aging, the risk of Alzheimer’s doubles every five years after age 65. When memory loss affects your everyday functional status, you should contact your medical practitioner or Alzheimer's Association for investigation.

Family history/genetics

Research has shown that you are at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s if you have a parent or sibling with the disease. Carrying genes, such as APOE-e4, puts you at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer's. Routine genetic testing is not currently recommended, but an estimated 40% to 65% of people with Alzheimer's have this gene. Research is ongoing, and more recent research suggests that Alzheimer's could have an autoimmune connection, which also tends to run in families.

Down syndrome

By age 60, half of the people with Down syndrome have Alzheimer’s. People who have Down syndrome have an extra copy of chromosome 21. This chromosome carries a gene that may increase Beta-amyloid protein production that affects Alzheimer's. Not all people with Down syndrome will develop Alzheimer's, but some will show signs in their thirties. Monitoring functional status, early cognitive screening, and behavioral strategies can initiate treatment sooner to maintain wellness and quality of life.

Sedentary lifestyle

Physical activity and exercise increase metabolism, blood flow, cognitive awareness, and mental sense of well-being. Lack of activity is the gateway to numerous health issues and chronic conditions.

Loneliness

Studies show that people with perceived loneliness and social isolation risk progressing to Alzheimer's. The risk is due to the increased amyloid burden shown on PET (positron emission tomography) scans of cognitively normal adults who are socially isolated. Indeed, social isolation during the pandemic could increase disease progression.

Depression

There is growing evidence that untreated depression may increase the risk of Alzheimer's. While depression is often identified as an early sign of cognitive impairment, the evidence suggests early treatment of underlying depression should be an Alzheimer's prevention strategy.

Hearing loss

According to a Lancet 2020 report, people with hearing loss are at a greater risk of developing Alzheimer's in later life. The CDC reports that one out of three adults over 60 already have hearing loss. By age 85, half of older adults have a hearing impairment. With hearing impairment, people will be less likely to have social interaction. In addition, the decline in lively brain activity reduces cognitive stimulation.

Brain injury

Even a mild traumatic brain injury, otherwise known as a concussion, can be a risk factor for Alzheimer’s later in life. However, not every head injury results in long-lasting cognitive impairment. Nevertheless, the damage to fragile brain cells can potentially affect memory and cognitive function associated with Alzheimer's disease.

Cardiovascular disease

The brain is susceptible to changes in someone's circulatory status. Any reduction in blood flow, such as through atherosclerosis or hypertension, can deplete oxygen to brain cells and impact cognition.

Keys to prevention

Exercise your mind

Keeping your mind active is essential to stimulate your brain and aid in preventing Alzheimer’s disease. Staying mentally busy with things like playing cards, board games, or doing word puzzles will stretch and exercise your brain. Participating in art and music or learning a new skill may also enhance cognition. On the other hand, studies show that passive activities such as sitting and watching television for more than 3.5 hours per day are not helpful and can accelerate cognitive decline.

Socialization

Maintaining social contact with family and friends is important in Alzheimer’s prevention. Becoming involved in social groups such as faith communities or other interest groups will increase socialization and interaction. Talking on the phone or using a FaceTime application can be beneficial when someone cannot go out to a group. Since the pandemic, more products and services have set up user-friendly video chats for seniors.

Hearing tests

Hearing aids can significantly affect engagement and cognition with early detection of hearing impairment. Therefore, you should have regular testing by an audiologist after age 60 to identify any hearing deficits and improve cognitive awareness.

Sleep

Changes in sleep patterns occur with Alzheimer’s. Getting enough good quality sleep is a significant preventative factor in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease. Seven hours or more of uninterrupted sleep each night in mid-life can reduce your chances of developing dementia in later life.

Diet

Reducing the intake of processed foods or following diets rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, and poultry helps lower inflammatory levels in the body associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

Exercise

While there may not be enough evidence to say that exercise prevents Alzheimer’s, the benefits outweigh the risks. Some sort of exercise or activity 20 to 30 minutes a day at least five days per week will improve your state of mind, circulatory status, and nerve conduction in the system. A study out of McMaster University in Canada showed that the lack of exercise is at least as significant a risk factor as carrying the Alzheimer’s APOE-e4 gene. Always contact your medical practitioner before beginning an exercise program.

Safety

Protecting your head will preserve brain function and avert traumatic brain injury. Avoid contact sports or risky activities but if you do, always wear a helmet. Consider using trekking poles when walking on uneven ground. Also, use mobility aids such as a cane or walker if your medical practitioner or therapist has made that recommendation.

Alzheimer’s disease is a severe neurodegenerative condition affecting millions worldwide. Causative factors such as age and genetics are not preventable. Still, several modifiable lifestyle factors may prevent or delay the onset of the disease. Research is ongoing, and advances in prevention and treatment are forthcoming.

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