Inherited dementia: can you save yourself?


We can change a lot in our life – but, unfortunately, not our own genes. We are all born with a certain genetic inheritance. However, this does not mean that we are helpless.

Take dementia, for example: even if there are cases of this cognitive disorder in the family, we can avoid the same fate. “By taking action and lifestyle changes, we can delay the onset or slow the progression of dementia,” said Dr. Andrew Budson, professor of neurology at Boston Veterans’ Health Complex.

Is age to blame?

Dementia is a general term like heart disease, and it actually encompasses a range of cognitive problems: memory loss, difficulty solving problems, and other thinking impairments. One of the most common causes of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. Dementia occurs when brain cells are damaged and have difficulty communicating with each other. This, in turn, can markedly affect a person’s thinking, feelings and behavior.

Researchers are still looking for a definitive answer to the question of what causes acquired dementia and who is most at risk. Of course, old age is a common factor, but if there was a family history of dementia, this suggests a higher risk.

So what role do our genes play? For years, doctors questioned patients about first-degree relatives – parents, siblings – to determine a family history of dementia. But now that list has expanded to include aunts, uncles and cousins.

According to Dr. Badson, at age 65, the chance of developing senile dementia among people without a family history is about 3%, but the risk rises to 6-12% for those with a genetic predisposition. Usually, early symptoms begin at about the same age as a family member with dementia, but variations are possible.

Dementia symptoms

The symptoms of dementia can manifest themselves differently in different people. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, common examples include recurring problems with:

  • short-term memory – reproduction of the information just received,
  • planning and preparing familiar dishes,
  • payment of bills,
  • the ability to quickly find a wallet,
  • memorizing plans (doctor visits, meetings with other people).

Many symptoms begin to appear gradually, and the situation worsens over time. If you notice them in yourself or loved ones, it is important to see a doctor as soon as possible. Early diagnosis can help you get the most out of the available treatments.

Inherited dementia: can you save yourself?

Take control of your life

Unfortunately, there is no cure for this disease. There is no 100% guaranteed way to protect yourself from its development. But we can reduce the risk, even if there is a genetic predisposition. Studies have shown that certain habits can help.

These include regular aerobic exercise, maintaining a healthy diet, and significantly limiting alcohol consumption. “The same lifestyle that can protect the average person can also help people at increased risk of developing dementia,” explains Dr. Budson.

A recent study of nearly 200,000 people (mean age 64, no signs of senile dementia) looked at the relationship between healthy lifestyle choices, family history, and the risk of dementia. The scientists collected information about the participants’ lifestyles, including exercise, diet, smoking, and alcohol consumption. Genetic risk was assessed using medical records and family history.

Good habits can help prevent dementia – even with unfavorable inheritance

Each participant received a conditional score based on lifestyle and genetic profile. A higher score was associated with lifestyle factors, and a lower score was associated with genetic factors.

The project lasted over 10 years. When the average age of participants was 74, the researchers found that people with a high genetic score – with a family history of dementia – had a lower risk of developing it if they also had a high healthy lifestyle score. This suggests that the right habits can help prevent dementia even when the inheritance is unfavorable.

But the likelihood of developing this disease in people with low living standards and high genetic indicators was more than two times higher than in people who led a healthy lifestyle and showed a low genetic indicator. It turns out that even if we do not have a genetic predisposition, we can aggravate the situation if we are sedentary, follow an unhealthy diet, smoke and / or drink too much alcohol.

“This study is great news for people with dementia in the family,” said Dr. Budson. “Everything indicates that there are ways to take control of your life.”

Better late than never

The sooner we start making lifestyle changes, the better. But the evidence also suggests that it’s never too late to get started. Plus, you don’t have to change everything at once, adds Dr. Budson: “Lifestyle changes can take time, so start with one habit and focus on it, and when you’re ready, add another.”

Here are some suggestions from an expert:

  • Quit smoking.
  • Go to the gym, or at least start walking for a few minutes every day, so that over time you can spend at least half an hour every day on it.
  • Cut back on alcohol. At events, switch to soft drinks: mineral water with lemon or non-alcoholic beer.
  • Increase your intake of whole grains, vegetables and fruits, nuts, beans, and oily fish.
  • Limit your intake of processed meats and foods made with saturated fats and simple sugars.

Agree, following the recommendations of doctors is not the highest price for the opportunity to stay sane and enjoy the age of maturity and wisdom.

About the author: Andrew Budson is an instructor of neurology at the Boston Veteran Healthcare Complex.

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