My mother's symptoms were very subtle at first – the occasional retelling of a story or the inability to remember the name of a common object. All things that could be chalked up to fatigue or not remembering who had heard the story the first time.
After a while, though, it became clear that it was more than an occasional memory lapse and as a physician and a daughter, I had to face the fact that my mother had Alzheimer’s disease.
Knowing the journey ahead for both my mother and my siblings was both sad and daunting.
Mom was started on the usual medications that help to stall the progress of the tangles that would eventually replace her normal brain. My siblings and I try to provide emotional support and ensure she's safe as her memory loss progresses.
As I look into her eyes, which occasionally still have the twinkle that spoke of a sparkling wit, I can’t help but wonder if I'm looking into the eyes of my own fate.
Alzheimer’s disease affects 4 million people in the US and is the leading cause of institutionalization. There are 360,000 new cases diagnosed each year. Luckily, less than 1% of cases are hereditary and are associated with early onset dementia (before age 60).
As my mother did not have symptoms until she was in her 70s and we have no other family members with this diagnosis, I feel that I have a chance to avoid this fate and like most people, would like to lessen my risk.
Alzheimer’s has been associated with several known risk factors, the greatest of which is age. The risk of developing dementia doubles every five years after the age of 65. It's estimated that 20 to 30% of people at age 85 have Alzheimer’s disease. Or, to put it more optimistically: 70 to 80% of them don’t. How do they do that?
Other risk factors for the development of Alzheimer’s disease have been identified. While none of them is a direct cause, the association can be strong and if a person has more than one, they can increase the risk.
Some of them, like age, cannot be changed. It's known that women are affected at an increased rate, as are some ethnic minorities such as African Americans and Hispanics. We also know that patients who have pre-existing brain diseases such as Down’s syndrome or Parkinson’s disease have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s. These risk factors can't be modified, but there are several others that can be addressed with lifestyle changes.
Researchers at UC San Francisco have identified seven modifiable risk factors that seem to be highly associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease. The study was published online in Lancet Neurology.
Here are the risk factors that they identified: