Are women more at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease? Does being white, well-educated, and living in a well-off neighborhood reduce your risk? And how important are your genes? Alzheimer’s disease has many risk factors but some of them can be mitigated. Learn more about who’s most at risk to develop Alzheimer’s. But first, it’s important to make the distinction between the different types of Alzheimer’s disease.
Early-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease
Early-onset Alzheimer’s develops in people before the age of 65. This form of Alzheimer’s is also called familial Alzheimer’s because it’s inherited from a parent—it has been linked to specific gene mutations. People who develop it carry mutations of amyloid precursor protein or presenilins 1 and 2 genes.
Familial Alzheimer’s represents only a small percentage of the total Alzheimer’s cases worldwide—less than 5%. If one or both of your parents and other close relatives have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, it’s possible to find out whether you carry risk genes. For most Alzheimer’s cases, however, the causes cannot yet be pinpointed to specific genes.
Late-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease
Most people get Alzheimer’s over the age of 65. When it occurs in older adults, the disease is known as late-onset Alzheimer’s disease. One’s genetic baggage may play a factor in the development of this condition. But at this point, scientists do not consider genetic risk factors enough to cause late-onset Alzheimer’s. Other factors such as lifestyle, diet, ethnicity, and socio-economic conditions may play a role in whether someone gets Alzheimer’s at an old age.
Risk Increases with Age
Based on our current understanding of Alzheimer’s, age is the greatest risk factor. The numbers are clear: around 95% of Alzheimer’s disease cases involve individuals over the age of 65. What is more, after the age of 65, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease doubles every five years. Of all age groups, people over the age of 85 are the most likely to develop Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s in the Family
If you have a parent, brother, or sister diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, you are more likely to receive the same diagnosis at some point in life. This risk further increases if more than one member of your family has Alzheimer’s. When the disease runs in the family, inherited genes are likely a major cause, even if we are not speaking about early-onset Alzheimer’s.
But when it comes to heredity, it’s important to make the distinction between deterministic genes and risk genes. Deterministic genes cause the condition, and they refer to the gene mutations we referred to in early Alzheimer’s disease. According to current estimates, deterministic genes cause less than 1%[i] of all Alzheimer’s disease cases.
Risk genes, on the other hand, are more prevalent. For example, it’s estimated that around 25%[ii] of the American population carries one gene that increases the risk of developing the disease. Risk genes may run in families, but in themselves, they are not enough to cause the disease—many people who carry them do not develop Alzheimer’s.
Head Injuries Can Increase Your Risk of Alzheimer’s
Traumatic brain injury has been linked to a higher risk of developing dementia in the future. But Alzheimer’s disease is only one form of dementia. Still, using a helmet when cycling and always fastening your seatbelt when driving can help prevent serious head injuries. Also, considering that 6 out of 10 falls happen at home, the National Institute on Aging provides a quick guide to fall-proofing your home.
Poor Heart Health Further Increases Risks
Research suggests that brain health and heart health are closely linked. While we need more research to better understand this link, studies show that Alzheimer’s disease occurs more frequently in people who suffer from conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or stroke. All these conditions affect the heart or blood vessels.
Are Men or Women More at Risk?
Women in their 60s are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than men. The disease also tends to have a worse prognosis when it occurs in women at this age than in men. It’s not yet clear why. Hormonal and genetic differences, together with lifestyle differences, may all play a role in women’s higher risk of getting Alzheimer’s. Around 3.2 million women in the US live with Alzheimer’s.
Some Populations Are More Likely to Develop Alzheimer’s
We’ve mentioned heritage already, but ethnicity seems also to play an important role in whether or not someone develops Alzheimer’s. African Americans are twice more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than whites. Latin Americans also carry more risk than white Americans—they are up to one and a half times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s at an old age. Of all groups, Asian Americans are the ones least likely to get Alzheimer’s.
Does Education Play a Role?
A significant number of studies have found that people with lower levels of education are more at risk. However, not all studies found a correlation between education and dementia across populations. Nor can it be stated that having a higher education noticeably lowers your risk of suffering from dementia.
There is evidence that lifelong learning can protect you from some types of dementia, though the exact impact on Alzheimer’s disease has not been quantified. Learning in all forms stimulates the brain and can maintain and improve cognitive abilities. Mild Cognitive Impairment is a recognized precursor to Alzheimer’s, occurring years before a person develops the disease.
The bottom line is that people who do not stimulate their brains through activities that challenge their cognitive ability are more likely to develop dementia and possibly Alzheimer’s disease. People with higher education are usually more likely to engage in lifelong learning, hence the assumption that education equals lower risk.
Socio-economic Factors and Alzheimer’s
The risk for Alzheimer’s seems to be higher in people facing socio-economic disadvantages such as poverty, unemployment, and housing problems. Research has found that people in disadvantaged neighborhoods had higher levels of some Alzheimer’s biomarkers in their spinal fluid.
Socioeconomic disadvantages may lead to poor nutrition, stress, lower level of medical care, poor sleep patterns, heart disease, and other factors that may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. However, it’s important to avoid oversimplification. Being born in a poor neighborhood may increase your risk of Alzheimer’s, but there are many other factors at play. Moreover, lifestyle changes during one’s life can have a major positive effect on your health.
Other Risks Factors
People experiencing stressful life events may also be more at risk. Research suggests that a major stressful event could be the equivalent of four years of cognitive aging. Emotional upheavals such as experiencing the death of a spouse or dear friend take their toll not just on your physical health, but also on our mental health. Loneliness and lack of social interaction especially at an older age may also increase the risk of Alzheimer’s.
So, Who Carries the Highest Risk?
While the exact causes of Alzheimer’s disease remain in most cases elusive, putting all the risk factors together enables us to determine the demographics of the person who is, statistically speaking, the most at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Excluding people who carry the gene mutations for early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, the person who is most at risk meets the following criteria:
- 65+ years old
- Gender: Female
- Ethnicity: African American or Latin American
- Carries Alzheimer’s risk genes (has had one or more Alzheimer’s cases in his or her close family)
- Has sustained a traumatic brain injury in the past
- Suffers from one or more conditions that damage the heart and blood vessels
- Faces socio-economic difficulties
- Does not engage in lifelong learning activities
- Has suffered from stressful life events
Certain categories of people are more at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. But many risk factors can be prevented through lifestyle changes, engaging in learning activities, and overcoming socio-economic difficulties.
Ultimately, some of the risk factors associated with Alzheimer’s can be motivating forces that inspire you to live a healthier life. Being in the at-risk category can be empowering. It can inspire change that will have a long-term positive impact on your life.