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Does a Family History of Dementia Increase Your Risk?

Seeing a loved one suffer from dementia can be heartbreaking, and it can be frightening to think that one day you might not be able to take care of yourself or remember those around you.

While it’s good to know your family history, just because a family member had a form of dementia, that doesn’t mean that you also are destined for it.

Dementia & Alzheimer’s Disease

Dementia is the umbrella term that describes a general decline in brain function caused by damaged brain cells, reports the American Academy of Neurology. A small number of brain cells can be expected to die naturally over time and can explain some of the cognitive slow down people experience as they age, but those with dementia experience it at a much faster rate. Thinking, remembering, problem solving, speaking or focusing on a task are all abilities that are affected by dementia. 

Research published in the journal Neuroepidemiology found that nearly 14% of U.S. adults aged 71 or older suffered from dementia, and 37% of those aged 90 or older.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accounting for about 60-80% of all cases. Vascular dementia accounts for about 10% of cases and occurs when there is damage to the blood vessels that lead to the brain, usually because of stroke.  

Risk Factors

Experts have discovered that people who carry a genetic variant called ApoE4 have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s than people who don’t, says Robert Fallows, PsyD, from Samaritan Neuropsychology-Albany. For any form of dementia, having an immediate family member with dementia puts you at higher risk.

However, a genetic risk doesn’t mean you will absolutely get the disease.

“Genetics is one risk factor for Alzheimer’s and other dementias but it’s not the only risk factor,” says Dr. Fallows. “There are other factors you can manage to reduce your overall risk of developing dementia.”

Other risk factors for dementia according to the American Academy of Neurology:

  • Poorly controlled diabetes.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Previous stroke.
  • Thickening of blood vessel walls.

Healthy Habits Reduce Risk

The good news is that adopting healthy habits can significantly reduce your risk of dementia. 

A paper published in the journal Neurology used data from two prospective cohort studies that looked at aging to evaluate five healthy lifestyle factors and the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. The researchers found that adopting more healthy lifestyle factors led to a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s independent of other risk factors like genetics. People who had two or three healthy factors had a 37% lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s than those who had zero or one healthy factor, and people who had four or five had a 60% lower risk.

The healthy factors were: not smoking; at least 150 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous physical activity; light to moderate alcohol consumption of about one drink a day for women and two for men; a high-quality Mediterranean-style diet; and regular engagement in cognitive activities like reading or playing games like checkers. 

“Making healthy lifestyle choices can have a protective effect on the brain, even in the presence of risk factors you can’t change,” says Dr. Fallows.

Normal Aging or Dementia?

According to Dr. Fallows, some slowing down of brain function and memory lapses are normal as you age, and don’t usually interfere with your daily life. Dementia, on the other hand, is disabling.

Typical Age-Related Changes Signs of Alzheimer’s & Dementia
Making a bad decision once in a while. Poor judgment and decision-making. 
Missing a monthly payment.
Inability to manage a budget.
Forgetting which day it is and remembering it later.
Losing track of the date or the season.
Sometimes forgetting which word to use.
Difficulty having a conversation.
Losing things from time to time.
Misplacing things and being unable to retrace steps to find them.
Needing help occasionally with cell phone settings or using the TV remote.
Difficulty completing a familiar task.

If you notice your ‘senior moments’ are making it difficult to manage your finances, communicate with others or complete routine tasks like getting groceries, it might be time to talk to your doctor about whether you need testing for dementia.

“Having an in-depth test like a neuropsychology evaluation can be reassuring for the patient and the family,” says Dr. Fallows. “It can help them understand the level of function that is available, and what to expect moving forward.”

6996615.804186119.1670260731-1254745065.1658859802" target="_blank"> Read more about dementia on the Alzheimer’s Association website.