Researchers and neurologists currently believe that Alzheimer’s disease is not caused by a single factor but rather is multifactorial. Alzheimer’s disease is caused by a combination of factors, including age, genetics, environment, and lifestyle. Together, these factors are believed to cause beta-amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles to build up in various brain regions, ultimately resulting in the death of neurons and progressive neurocognitive decline.
For healthcare providers, providing education about Alzheimer’s disease risk factors is a crucial step in promoting brain health awareness and enabling patients to take charge of their brain health. This article will provide an overview of established risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and all-cause dementia.
With the growing awareness surrounding the importance of Alzheimer’s disease prevention and early detection, research efforts continue to grow our understanding of the factors involved in the development of Alzheimer’s. Although it is unclear what triggers the pathological changes in the brain, researchers have discovered several factors that may increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
The top Alzheimer’s disease risk factors are advancing age, genetics, and family history, with advancing age being the greatest risk factor. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, after age 65, the risk of Alzheimer’s disease doubles every five years. Although Alzheimer’s is generally associated with older adults, it can also develop in individuals under the age of 65 (early-onset Alzheimer’s disease).
Researchers have also discovered several genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. Both risk and deterministic genes have been found for Alzheimer’s disease.
Having a family history of Alzheimer’s disease is also a known Alzheimer’s disease risk factor. Although family history is influenced in part by genetics, it’s also influenced by lifestyle and environment, as families often have similar lifestyles and environments. Individuals who have a parent or sibling living with Alzheimer’s disease are at an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
Many neurological diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, cause dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for approximately 60% to 80% of all dementia cases. With this in mind, it’s not only important to educate patients on the risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease itself but also the risk factors for all-cause dementia—especially considering many of these factors are modifiable.
The most recent report of the Lancet Commission on dementia prevention, intervention, and care suggests there are 12 potentially modifiable risk factors for all-cause dementia. In their life-course model of dementia prevention, they categorize risk factors by three stages of life: early life, midlife, and later life. They estimate that modifying these risk factors may prevent or delay up to 40% of dementia cases.
*Note: Some of the above factors are not always entirely modifiable. For example, where you grow up and the level of education you can attain may not be modifiable. Similarly, genetic factors are at play for hypertension and diabetes, meaning these risk factors are not always modifiable.
The Lancet’s life-course model speaks for itself—it’s never too early or too late for patients to start prioritizing their brain health by making meaningful changes. Educating patients on Alzheimer’s disease risk factors provides them with the tools they need to support their brain health and reduce their risk of dementia.
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