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What Causes Alzheimer's?

There's no cure. But researchers are working to pinpoint the cause.
What Causes Alzheimer's?

You might think of Alzheimer's disease as the affliction that makes you forgetful and confused, killing your spirit. But it can also kill you, period.

Alzheimer's, the most common form of dementia, is the sixth leading cause of death for adults in America per the CDC and impacts more than a million people. And unlike other diseases, such as cancer and heart disease, death rates of Alzheimer's are increasing with time. There is no cure for Alzheimer's and the memory disease is progressive. Since it involves the part of the brain that controls your thoughts, memories, and language, it can start mild and ultimately leave a person unable to carry out daily activities. 

That's why discovering the cause is so important.

"There's a lot we don't know about what causes Alzheimer's disease," admits Carolyn Fredericks, MD, a Yale Medicine neurologist who specializes in Alzheimer's disease. What we do know, she explains, is that patients with Alzheimer's suffer from a build-up of amyloid protein in the brain—and most patients also have excessive build-up of a second protein, called tau. "Both of these proteins can be toxic to brain cells."

So what causes Alzheimer's disease is, in short, brain cell death.

So What Are the Symptoms?

Alzheimer's symptoms usually start after the age of 60. According to Dr. Fredericks, there are many symptoms of the disease to look out for, most of them involving your memory. 

"All of us forget things now and then, but finding that you or a loved one is repeatedly forgetting appointments, losing important belongings like wallets or phones, struggling to keep track of the date or time of day, or repeating the same question or story over and over are red flags," Dr. Fredericks points out. Other symptoms can include difficulty finding your way, even on a familiar drive, difficulty keeping track of complex tasks that you used to manage with ease—like cooking several dishes at once for dinner, or keeping track of your bills and managing your checkbook, and becoming less interested in social activities, or more anxious or depressed.

How to Determine Your Risk

Despite lots of research, scientists still do not know exactly what causes Alzheimer's Disease. However, there are a number of risk factors for Alzheimer's that everyone should be aware of:

  • Age: Most people are diagnosed with the condition after the age of 60, however, it can occur in younger people as well. According to the CDC, the number of people living with the disease doubles every 5 years beyond age 65. "The longer we live, the more likely we are to come down with the symptoms," explains Dr. Fredericks. 
  • Gender: Almost two-thirds of those suffering from Alzheimer's are women, according to the Alzheimer's Association.
  • Race: The AA also points out that race comes into play. Older African Americans are twice as likely to have it as older Caucasians, while Hispanics are one-and-a-half times more likely to have it. 
  • Family History: If you have a family history of Alzheimer's researchers believe that it may increase your chances of developing it.
  • Brain Changes: According to researchers, changes in the brain can begin years before the first symptoms appear.
  • High Blood Pressure and High Cholesterol: Scientists believe that heart disease and stroke risk factors may also predict Alzheimer's. These include high blood pressure and high cholesterol. 

Other possible risk factors may include education, diet, and environment. However, more research is needed to establish a conclusive connection. 

RELATED: 50 Unhealthiest Habits After 50

How to Decrease Your Risk

While scientists still don't know exactly why some people develop Alzheimer's and others don't, you aren't totally powerless over your risk of Alzheimer's. According to Dr. Fredericks, about a third of your risk—which is a lot—is under your control. 

Certain lifestyle choices—such as physical activity and diet—may help support brain health and prevent Alzheimer's. There is also growing evidence that mental, and social activities can also help reduce the risk. 

Dr. Fredericks also points out that that vascular disease—caused by things like smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes—can increase amyloid build-up and increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease. Therefore, putting down the pack, eating healthy, and keeping your blood pressure in check can also help with prevention. 

"Getting on top of your blood pressure and cholesterol in midlife, starting a healthy cardiovascular exercise program, quitting smoking, eating a healthy diet such as a Mediterranean diet, and keeping your blood sugars from becoming unhealthily high can all help reduce your risk," she explains. And to live your happiest and healthiest life, don't miss these 11 Ways to Prevent Alzheimer's.

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