Is dementia hereditary?
First things first:
What do we even mean by the term "dementia"?
Dementia isn’t really a disease. It is, rather, a word used to describe a group of symptoms of several different illnesses. What these illnesses have in common is that they cause a steady decline in the sufferer's functioning, specifically their memory, intellect, social skills, and emotional responses.
Naturally, many family members who witness the declining cognitive abilities of a loved one start to worry if they will inherit it or pass it on to their children.
The fact is:
There are many different types of dementia, and while a few are hereditary, most aren’t.
If you're over the age of 5, you have probably heard of Alzheimer's disease. This form of dementia is the most common and accounts for over half of all cases of dementia.
Is Alzheimer’s Hereditary?
In over 99% of Alzheimer’s cases, the disease is not hereditary. The biggest risk factor for it is age, and it primarily affects people between the age of 70 and 90.
This is what is known as "late onset Alzheimer's." If you have a parent or grandparent who is this age and who has the disease, your risk of getting it is not higher than the rest of the population.
A parent or grandparent with early-onset Alzheimer’s which has started before the age of 60, does mean there’s a greater chance that it’s a hereditary type.
Can Vascular Dementia/ Vascular Cognitive Impairment be Hereditary?
Vascular cognitive impairment is a condition in which cognitive skills are damaged as a direct result of cerebrovascular disease in the brain.
Blood vessels in the brain become blocked or damaged to the extent that brain cells don't get the oxygen and nutrients they need.
The decline in cognitive ability can happen rapidly, such as after a stroke or may occur gradually as smaller blood vessels are damaged over time. The changes range from mild to severe.
Most of the time, vascular dementia is not hereditary.
The underlying health problems that can be partly responsible for this condition, like diabetes and hypertension, heart disease and stroke are sometimes passed down the generations. Certain genes may be inherited that increase the risk of developing the disease.
We’ll examine it in more detail later, but that’s why a healthy lifestyle is even more important for preventing vascular cognitive impairment than for Alzheimer’s.
Is Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD) / Pick’s Disease Hereditary?
This type of degeneration is a number of different ailments that are brought on by the progressive loss of nerve cells specifically from the brain’s frontal or temporal areas. The degeneration includes changes in temperament, behavior, and language skills.
This condition is rare, but it can be passed on directly from parent to child.
About 33% of everyone affected by it has a family history of this type of dementia. It is inherited because of a single mutation on a specific gene. Those worried about passing FTD on to their children or of inheriting it can get a referral from their GP to a genetic testing service.
Frontotemporal dementia is different from Alzheimer's in several key ways:
It usually has an earlier onset, as early as the age of 40. With Alzheimer’s, behavioral changes are usually noticed first, whereas with FTD, the main characteristic noticed at first is language difficulty. Alzheimer’s victims frequently suffer from hallucinations and delusions, but these are fairly rare in FTD.
Is Familial Prion Disease Hereditary?
This is another rare type of dementia that has a 50% chance of being passed down through the family.
It is inherited via a single faulty, dominant gene.
How to Lower Your Risk of Dementia?
Research shows more and more:
The development of most dementias is strongly influenced by lifestyle and environmental risks. We've put together seven ways to prevent cognitive decline as you age and lower your chances of dementia.
Keep Seeking Out New Challenges
Scientists don’t know exactly why challenging ourselves to learn new skills protects cognitive function, but they do have some theories:
It's been shown that neurogenesis, or the growth of new brain cells, continues throughout our lives, even into old age. The brain is highly plastic, and challenges lead to actual positive changes in brain tissue. It is thought that new connections are created between cells when a new skill is learned.
You don't have to learn something difficult, like a new language, to reap positive benefits. Something simple like taking a different route to town in the morning or joining a painting class can be just as beneficial.
The key is...
It should be something you enjoy.
Consistently challenge yourself to try new things. Give the brain experiences it hasn’t had before like visiting a different park or listening to a different type of music. Activities that combine brain stimulation with social engagement have been shown to be the most beneficial.
- Eat a MIND Diet
We kid you not:
The Mediterranean way of eating has been shown to provide a 35% lower Alzheimer's risk.
Simply put, Mediterranean diet means: more vegetables, whole grains, and fruit. Eat legumes such as beans, chickpeas, and lentils. Fish is excellent, as are nuts such as almonds and walnuts. Cook with small amounts of olive oil and have only small amounts of red meat and dairy if any.
Perhaps an improvement even on the Mediterranean diet is the MIND diet, developed at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Researchers claim it reduces the risk of Alzheimer's by over 50%.
The MIND diet places emphasis on green leafy foods such as kale and spinach as well as a variety of other vegetables. Nuts are recommended at least five days a week, as well as berries a couple of times a week. Beans, whole grains, and fish are emphasized, as are poultry and olive oil.
Foods to avoid are red meat, butter, and hard margarine, pastries, and fried foods.
Certain dietary supplements could prevent the decline of cognition, too; molecular hydrogen has been shown to improve cognitive function, inhibit learning and memory impairments, and reduce neuronal damage.
Interestingly, a daily glass of wine has also been shown to be beneficial!
- Get a Good Night’s Sleep
It’s been shown that people who don’t get sufficient sleep are at greater risk of developing various types of dementia.
Lifestyle changes that facilitate better sleep, such as exercise, are also beneficial.
- Keep Your Cardiovascular System Healthy
The food choices you make on a daily basis affect your head as well as your heart. Evidence is mounting on the link between heart health and cognitive function.
It is now known that obesity, smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol increase the risk of having dementia in later life.
- Prevent Brain Injuries
Avoid participating in sports where you are at a high risk of brain injury, such as boxing. If you do extreme sports such as mountain biking, kitesurfing or white-water rafting, be sure to wear the prescribed protective headgear.
Of course, not every smoker will go on to develop dementia.
However, giving up the habit is thought to cut your risk to that of non-smokers. This is probably because the two most common types of dementia- Alzheimer’s and vascular- are both associated with heart and blood vessel problems. Of course, smoking increases the risk of vascular problems like strokes or minor bleeds in the brain.
Also, the toxins in cigarette smoke cause inflammation, which has been linked to the development of dementia.
We've kept the best for last:
Out of all the lifestyle changes we've looked at so far, this one seems to reduce the risk of dementia the most. Regular cardiovascular exercise, like brisk walking or running, improves circulation, and increases blood flow to the brain.
Now, you don’t have to do marathons:
30 minutes a day, several days a week, over at least a year, are very beneficial.
Exercising regularly doesn’t mean taking up a sport!
For elderly people, even just a brisk walk, garden work or house cleaning has been shown to reduce dementia risk. Keeping moving seems to be the key here.
We've seen that fewer than 1% of cases of Alzheimer's are of the early-onset, hereditary type. Therefore:
Having an elderly family member with dementia does not mean that you will get the same affliction.
Dementia is highly preventable by making specific and ongoing lifestyle changes. So keep calm and get your healthy on!