We still don’t know the exact cause of Alzheimer's. But we’ve found many factors, such as brain changes as we age, environmental factors, our lifestyles, and genetics. These factors are different for everyone. To prevent and cope with Alzheimer's we need to understand its mechanisms and reduce the risk factors that might cause it in the future.
What Is Alzheimer's?
Alzheimer's is a brain disease caused by changes in the operation or structure of brain tissue. Scientists have found that this change is gradual. Brains accumulate amyloid protein (beta-amyloid) in plaques between brain cells. Tau protein also forms tangles within brain cells. Connections between cells weaken and cells lose their function too. Forgetfulness follows and then dementia. If left untreated, the symptoms may worsen and affect daily life. Alzheimer's patients need a caregiver for daily activities. With severe symptoms, they mightn’t be able to help themselves in daily life.
What Causes Alzheimer's?
As mentioned above, Alzheimer's involves a combination of factors, both variable and fixed. The 3 key factors are aging, affected by genetics and by health, environmental, and lifestyle factors. Genetic factors cannot be changed or prevented. But we can reduce health, environmental, and lifestyle factors by adjusting our behaviors as follows.
Aging doesn’t directly cause Alzheimer's but it’s an important factor that increases the chances of getting the disease. After we reach 65, the incidence of Alzheimer's doubles every 5 years until 1 in 3 at 85 and older have it. Increasing age is therefore a key factor.
Scientists have researched why age is a factor in Alzheimer's. Aging affects brain cells. The changes include atrophy (shrinking) of certain parts of the brain as well as inflammation and vascular damage. Free radicals appear. The process of generating energy within the cells can become defective. These changes likely explain why aging is a cause of Alzheimer's.
But aging is just one factor. Many people over 90 don’t have dementia. We cannot definitively conclude that increasing age is a direct cause of Alzheimer's.
Genetic Factors for Alzheimer's
The genes we inherit from our parents control certain aspects of our bodies, including the risk of getting certain diseases. You might fear that having parents or relatives with Alzheimer's means you will too. But having a parent with Alzheimer's only makes us more likely to develop it than other people.
Alzheimer's can be divided into 2 main types: early-onset and late-onset. Both are related to genetic factors.
- Early-Onset Alzheimer's Alzheimer's disease is found in people aged 30-65 years old. But these people are fewer than 10% of all Alzheimer's patients. It may be caused by changes in genes and inherited from parents. One of 3 genes can be altered: amyloid precursor protein (APP) on chromosome 21, presenilin 1 (PSEN1) on chromosome 14th pair, and presenilin 2 (PSEN2) on chromosome 1. In addition to these 3 genes, scientists have also found other genetic factors. Researchers are trying to study these further to know the genes or other genetic factors that cause Alzheimer's and use that knowledge to find ways to prevent and treat it.
- Late-Onset Alzheimer's This type of Alzheimer's is most common. It affects people aged 65 years and over. It’s still not clear which gene this type of Alzheimer's is related to. But scientists speculate that it may be related to a gene called apolipoprotein E (ApoE) of type ApoE4 (ApoE4), which can be said to be a risk factor.
But having the Apoe 4 gene doesn’t mean that you’ll develop Alzheimer's. Data shows that some people with the Apoe 4 gene don’t get Alzheimer's. And not all Alzheimer's patients have the Apoe 4 gene. So it only increases the risk of developing Alzheimer's.
This table summarizes the differences between the 2 types of Alzheimer's disease.
Symptoms appear from 30 to 65
Symptoms appear from 65
Mainly from inherited genes
Maybe related to ApoE4
Health, Environment, and Lifestyle Factors
The factors mentioned above cannot be changed or prevented. But health, environment, and lifestyle factors also influence Alzheimer’s.
Health factors are associated with Alzheimer's. Various diseases are linked such as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and abnormal metabolism such as diabetes and obesity. There are studies underway on reducing the risk of these diseases to counter the danger of Alzheimer's too.
Healthy food, exercise, social activities, enough sleep, and mental stimulation can help older adults enjoy better health and reduce their risk of Alzheimer's. There are also racial and sex factors that may affect the incidence of dementia.
These factors are being researched to understand what causes Alzheimer's and find ways to prevent and treat it in the future.
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