Alzheimer's disease

Alzheimer’s is a disease that causes dementia. It is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for about two-thirds of cases in older people.

A risk factor is something that increases your chances of developing a disease. Someone’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s is made up of a number of different elements. This includes age, genetics and lifestyle. It’s a complicated picture.

The biggest risk factor for developing late-onset Alzheimer’s is age – the older you are the more likely you are to develop it. However, the brain changes that lead to Alzheimer’s start many years before there are any symptoms, so in the future there may be new ways of preventing and treating the disease.

We know that many people live a healthy and active life but still develop dementia. However, research suggests some cases of dementia could be avoided by helping people address lifestyle factors.

Lifestyle

Some of the risk factors for Alzheimer’s are the same as for cardiovascular disease (like heart disease and stroke). By leading a healthy lifestyle and taking regular exercise you will be helping to keep your heart healthy. It’s possible you will be lowering your risk of Alzheimer’s too.

To keep healthy:

  • be active and exercise regularly
  • don’t smoke
  • eat a healthy balanced diet
  • control high blood pressure
  • keep cholesterol at a healthy level
  • maintain a healthy weight
  • only drink alcohol within recommended limits.

Some studies suggest that enjoying an active social life, with lots of interests and hobbies might be beneficial.

For more information, visit our page on reducing the risk.

Genetics

Alzheimer’s is common, and many people have a relative who has the disease. This doesn’t mean they will inherit it. Some research has suggested that if someone has a parent or grandparent with Alzheimer’s who developed the disease over the age of 65, then their own risk of developing Alzheimer’s may be slightly higher than someone with no family history.

Research has identified several genes that are associated with a higher risk of late-onset Alzheimer’s in some people. Having these genes does not definitely mean someone will develop the disease, only that their risk is higher than those with a different genetic make-up. However, the discovery of these genes is revealing more about the causes of Alzheimer’s.

In some instances early-onset Alzheimer’s can run in families and may be caused by faulty genes. In these cases, many members of the same side of the family are affected, often in their 30s, 40s or 50s. These types of Alzheimer’s are very rare.

For more information about genetics, visit our genes and dementia page.

Other risk factors

Some people develop mild memory problems that are worse than expected for their age, but that aren’t yet getting in the way of normal daily life. You might hear this called mild cognitive impairment or MCI. While people with MCI are at increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s, many people with MCI do not develop the disease and some even regain normal memory function.

People with Down’s syndrome are at increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s and are more likely to develop the disease at an earlier age.

For more information on any of these conditions, talk to your doctor.

This information was updated in May 2018 and is due for review in May 2020. It does not replace any advice that doctors, pharmacists or nurses may give you. Please contact us if you would like a version with references.