Genes are the building blocks of every individual and how they work. Scientists have found evidence linking certain genes with Alzheimer’s disease.

Your Health, Men's Health, Women's Health | 4 years ago

Am I Next? Alzheimer's Disease Runs In My Family

Genes are the building blocks of every individual and how they work. Scientists have found evidence linking certain genes with Alzheimer’s disease.

Physicians and researchers don’t know the exact cause of Alzheimer’s, how to slow it down once diagnosed or how to prevent the disease, but research does tell them that genes are at the center of everything we know about this destructive disease. For years, research has been underway examining links between the disease and a gene called the APOE gene. While this gene is one significant factor in research, another risk factor is family history.

Family History

For anyone who has a parent, brother or sister with Alzheimer’s, the likelihood of getting the disease is greater than that of individuals without a family history. If more than one family member has the illness, the risk increases.

“While genetics can play a role, for any of us looking to live a long life, Alzheimer’s disease is a concern because it can affect any human brain,” says Oleg Tcheremissine, MD, professor of psychiatry & research director for Behavioral Health Services at Atrium Health. “Longevity is the other major factor – 32 percent of individuals over the age of 85 have been diagnosed with the disease.”  

Doctors and researchers know that two kinds of genes play a role in whether or not a person develops a disease: risk genes and deterministic genes.

  • Risk genes increase the likelihood of developing a disease but do not guarantee it will happen. The APOE-e4 risk gene remains the one with the strongest impact on determining whether or not an individual may develop the disease.
  • Deterministic genes directly cause a disease. When Alzheimer’s is caused by one of these genes, it is called familial Alzheimer’s disease and generations of a family could be affected.

Researchers and doctors, like Dr. Tcheremissine, are not yet certain how these genes are increasing the risk of the disease, but it is known that these genes can result in symptoms presenting themselves at a younger age than usual. As in many other therapeutic areas, establishing a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease earlier in the course of illness will allow a broader range of treatment options, including participation in clinical trials. For further information about clinical trials, please email Dr. Christine Becker of the Office of Clinical and Translational Research. 

Age and Lifestyle Play a Role in Risk

Age remains the greatest risk factor for individual’s over the age of 65. One in nine people in this age group and nearly one-third of people 85 and older develop Alzheimer’s disease. Medical professionals continue to research the disease and uncover links between genes and Alzheimer’s, but lifestyle and environment also contribute to people getting the condition.

Physical activities play an important role in keeping the mind and body active,” says Dr. Tcheremissine. “The trick is to tailor your activity to something you enjoy like yoga, calisthenic exercises, swimming, walking and jogging, and of course, weight-lifting activities.”

According to Dr. Tcheremissine, social and mental stimulations are also central to the issue. Individuals who live alone are prone to cognitive decline more that those who develop robust social networks and support systems.

Epigenetic Is a Big Word

Epigenetics is the study of gene expressions (how your body’s cells read genes) in the body and how they change. Epigenetic changes in the body are a regular and natural occurrence but can also be influenced by several factors including age, environment and lifestyle, and disease state. As with many other diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, and even cancer, Alzheimer’s disease is an epigenetic disorder. Epigenetic experts believe that environmental conditions and life experiences can flip the "on/off switches" on an individual’s genes. In the absence of new effective therapeutics, the cognitive impairment can be delayed or in some cases even prevented by promoting changes in human behavior –  health, fitness and cognitive activity.

Discuss Your Medical History

Knowing your family medical history and talking with your primary care physician are the first line of defense against developing Alzheimer’s disease. For readers closer to 50 than 40, a strategy for healthy aging can help keep your body and mind strong. It’s recommended that you stay active, eat a healthy diet, avoid excess alcohol and exercise the mind as well as the body. If you do have a family history of the disease, work with your physician to stay up-to-date on the latest research and be cognizant of symptoms.

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