The exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease is not clearly understood, but patients with the condition have been found to have abnormal protein deposits (amyloid plaques) in their brains, along with fibres called tau tangles and a chemical called acetylcholine. These disrupt neuronal messaging in the brain, which eventually becomes permanently damaged, affecting memory and cognitive processing.
Although the exact triggers of this condition have yet to be fully elucidated, some factors known to increase the risk of dementia include:
Age is the most important risk factor for this condition. One in every six people over the age of 80 is affected by Alzheimer’s disease. The risk of people developing the disease doubles every 5 years beyond age 65 years.
A family history of Alzheimer’s
Having a family member who has developed Alzheimer’s disease increases an individual’s risk of developing the condition, although not in any predictable way. A few genes have now been identified that influence the risk of dementia to different degrees, with subtle variations sometimes increasing and sometimes decreasing risk for the condition.
History of head injury
A previous head injury and whiplash have been associated with an increased risk of dementia.
Cardiovascular risk factors
Risk factors that raise the risk of cardiovascular disease, such as smoking, high cholesterol, hypertension, obesity or diabetes can raise the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. People can therefore decrease their risk for the condition by making lifestyle changes such as stopping smoking, losing weight, exercising and eating a healthy diet. People should also try to maintain their mental ability through reading or completing puzzles, for example.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc