Despite the real gains in Alzheimer’s research, the statistics around the disease remain staggering. More than five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s today; that includes one in ten people 65 and older. A new person develops Alzheimer’s in the US every 66 seconds. And since the year 2000, the instance of Alzheimer’s-related deaths has gone up nearly 89%. Such compelling data, of course, means that the sense of urgency around finding cure remains high – and with it, a brisk research pace. With the corresponding deep dive into Alzheimer’s complexity, scientists are coalescing around a cluster of risk factors they believe are behind its diagnosis. Here are what experts believe are the driving causes behind the disease:
- AGE: All research points to age as the number one determining factor in developing Alzheimer’s. Once you hit 65, your risk doubles every five years. At 85, you are at a 50% risk of being diagnosed. Today in the US, more than one-third of people 85+ have Alzheimer’s.
- GENETICS AND FAMILY HISTORY: Those people with a sibling or parent with Alzheimer’s are at greater risk for developing it themselves; this risk climbs if more than one relative is affected. That said, true familial Alzheimer’s accounts for 1 percent of all cases. In terms of genetics, while there is not a proven genetic mutation connected to the disease, scientists have identified what they term risk genes in the context of Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Head to the Alzheimer’s organization website for a walk-through of this complex topic.
- DOWN SYNDROME: People with Down syndrome are born with an extra copy of chromosome 21, which carries the APP gene associated with the beta-amyloid plaques that are present in Alzheimer’s. Even a few decades ago, the medical complications associated with Down’s meant people usually didn’t live long enough to experience dementia. But clinical advances are lengthening Down’s life expectancy to an average of 55-60 years, meaning an increasing number are being diagnosed – usually with early-onset Alzheimer’s, which strikes before 65. And yet not every Down’s patient will end up exhibiting full-blown Alzheimer’s symptoms, which scientists are still working to understand.
- HEART HEALTH: Scientists believe that brain health appears closely tied to heart health, and are studying the apparent increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s in people with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stroke, diabetes, and heart disease. They’re looking at whether current medications treating those conditions might be used to either treat Alzheimer’s or lower people’s risk for developing it, as well as whether new potential medication targets might be discovered through studying the heart-brain connection at the molecular level. Researchers are also considering whether heart-healthy lifestyle choices around diet and exercise might successfully prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s.
- HEAD INJURY: Of course, not everyone who suffers a traumatic head injury is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. But studies over the last 30 years have pointed to a greater instance of diagnosis among people who’ve suffered head trauma. One study in particular indicates that adults with an instance of moderate brain injury demonstrate a 2.3 times greater risk of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s; in those with a history of severe brain injury, the risk jumps to 4.5 times greater.
If you recognize any of these factors in your own life, there’s not necessarily cause for alarm. Researchers stress that, while they’ve been able to isolate these causes, there are nuances case by case, with many variables. Stay up to date and informed by checking in with reputable sites like the Alzheimer’s Organization and the Mayo Clinic and, as always, see your doctor.