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 things including our age, genes, lifestyle, and environment.

The biggest risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s in people over 65 is age – the older you are, the more likely you are to develop it. However, the brain changes that lead to Alzheimer’s start 15-20 years before there are any symptoms. Current research is finding ways to identify and diagnose these changes earlier on, so there may be new ways to prevent and treat the disease in much earlier stages in the future.

We know that many people live a healthy and active life but still develop dementia. However, research suggests around one in three 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 and brain healthy. It’s likely you will be lowering your risk of Alzheimer’s too.

For a healthy brain:

  • Be active
  • Don't smoke.
  • Eat a healthy balanced diet.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Have your hearing checked regularly.
  • Control high blood pressure.
  • Keep cholesterol at a healthy level.
  • Only drink alcohol within recommended limits.

Research has linked staying mentally and socially active to a lower risk of dementia. It’s not clear which activities are most beneficial, but doing things you enjoy like reading, doing puzzles, or joining a singing group, or social club can help you to feel happier, stay mentally active and feel more positive in life.

You can find out more abut steps you can take to reduce your risk of dementia here:

Genetics

Because Alzheimer’s is common, many people have a relative who has the disease, but this doesn’t mean they will definitely inherit it. However, 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 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 risk genes does not definitely mean someone will develop the disease, only that their chances are higher than people who do not have them.

Sometimes, young onset Alzheimer’s, where people develop symptoms before the age of 65, 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 directly inherited Alzheimer’s are very rare.

For more information about genes and Alzheimer's you can visit our webpage here:

Other risk factors

Some people develop mild memory problems that are worse than expected for their age, but do not get in the way of normal daily life. You might hear this called mild cognitive impairment (MCI). While people with MCI are at an 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 syndrome are at an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s and are more likely to develop the disease at an earlier age.

What is Alzheimer's disease?

Find out more about the symptoms and causes of Alzheimer's disease, and the treatments currently available.

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This information was updated in May 2022 and is due to be reviewed in May 2024. It was written by Alzheimer’s Research UK’s Information Services team with input from lay and expert reviewers. Please get in touch if you’d like a version with references or in a different format.

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