While there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, knowing one’s risk can help with early detection and treatment which may lead to a better quality of life.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, which is a general term for the impaired ability to remember, think, and make decisions that can ultimately interfere with doing everyday activities. It’s a progressive disease that may start with mild memory loss and can possibly leading to loss of the ability to carry on a conversation and respond to surroundings.
As many as 5.8 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of people living with the disease doubles every five years beyond age 64—and this number is projected to nearly triple to 14 million people by 2060.
Scientists do not yet fully understand what causes Alzheimer’s disease. There’s likely not a single cause but rather several factors that can affect each person differently. Age is the best-known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.
African Americans are twice as likely as whites to develop the disease—and scientists may have found a biological clue that may help explain why. A 2019 study of 1,255 people, both Black and White, found that cerebrospinal fluid from African Americans tended to contain lower levels of the tau protein, a protein linked to Alzheimer’s. However, these low levels did not seem to protect African Americans from developing the disease. This led scientists to conclude that the underlying causes of the disease are different in African Americans and this may contribute to their increased risk to develop the disease.
While researchers believe that genetics may play a role in developing Alzheimer’s disease there are other risk factors that can be modified and can reduce the risk of developing the disease. CDC studies show that adequate physical activity, a healthy diet, limited alcohol consumption, and not smoking may protect brain health as people age.
According to the CDC, people with one or more of these 10 warning signs should see a doctor to find a cause:
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life (e.g., forgetting events or repeating yourself)
- Challenges in planning or solving problems (e.g., having trouble paying bills or cooking recipes)
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work, or at leisure (e.g., having problems with cooking)
- Confusion with time or place (e.g., losing track of dates)
- Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relations (e.g., having more difficulty with balance and judging distance)
- New problems with words in speaking or writing (e.g., having trouble following or joining a conversation)
- Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps (e.g., placing car keys in the washer or dryer)
- Decreased or poor judgment (e.g., being a victim of a scam)
- Withdrawal from work or social activities (e.g., not wanting to do activities as you usually do)
- Changes in mood and personality (e.g., getting easily upset in common situations)
If you’re having these symptoms, getting checked by your doctor can help determine if they’re related to Alzheimer’s disease. While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, an early diagnosis can be helpful. Doctors can offer drug and non-drug interventions to manage symptoms. Doctors often prescribe drugs that may slow the decline in memory and other cognitive skills. And early diagnosis provides you with a better chance of benefiting from treatment.
An early diagnosis makes individuals eligible for a wider variety of clinical trials, which advance research and may provide medical benefits. The AHEAD study, for instance, is the first Alzheimer’s disease research study to recruit people as young as 55 years old who are at risk of developing symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease as they get older.
The study tests whether an investigational treatment can slow or stop the earliest brain changes due to Alzheimer’s disease in people with a higher risk of developing the disease later in life. That’s because brain changes related to Alzheimer’s disease can begin up to 20 years before a person notices any symptoms. (Call 1-800-AHEAD-70, or 1-800-243-2370, to see if you’re eligible to screen for the AHEAD 3-45 Study.)