Is dementia hereditary?
It’s a very good question, and we have a few things to talk about today.
First things first:
What does the term "dementia" even mean?
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 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:
Most forms of dementia are NOT passed down through the family. Some rare types of dementia may have genetic links, but this is a very small percentage of total dementia cases.
This article will help you understand four different types of dementia and their possible genetic links:
- Alzheimer’s Disease
- Vascular Dementia
- Frontotemporal Dementia
- Prion Disease
Is Alzheimer’s Hereditary?
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, and it accounts for over half of all cases.
In over 99% of Alzheimer’s cases, the disease is NOT hereditary.
The biggest risk factor for Alzheimer’s is age. It primarily affects people between the age of 70 and 90. This is often known as "late-onset” Alzheimer's.
If you have a parent or grandparent this age who has the disease, you don’t need to worry about having an increased risk of getting it. Your level of risk will be the same as the rest of the population.
In around 3–5% of all Alzheimer’s cases, it affects people before the age of 60 — sometimes even in their 30s, 40s, or 50s. This is known as “early-onset” Alzheimer’s.
Early-onset Alzheimer’s could be caused by a faulty gene. And only about 10% of these cases have a very strong hereditary pattern. However, the lower the age of onset, the higher that percentage will be.
Is Vascular Dementia Hereditary?
Vascular Dementia (and Vascular Cognitive Impairment) is a condition in which cognitive skills are damaged as a direct result of cerebrovascular disease in the brain.
That means 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 gradually (as when smaller blood vessels are damaged over time). And these 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 (such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and stroke) are sometimes passed down through generations. Therefore, certain genes that increase the risk of developing the disease may be inherited.
Vascular dementia most commonly occurs in people between the ages of 60 and 75.
Is Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD) Hereditary?
Frontotemporal dementia (a.k.a. Pick’s Disease) is a number of different ailments caused by the progressive loss of nerve cells — specifically from the brain’s frontal or temporal areas. It includes changes in temperament, behavior, and language skills.
Frontotemporal Dementia 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 inheriting FTD or passing it on to their children can get a referral from their general practitioner to a genetic testing service.
FTD usually has an earlier onset than Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia — as early as age 40. The first noticeable characteristic is often language difficulty.
Is Prion Disease Hereditary?
Prion disease is a group of conditions that impairs brain function and causes changes in memory, personality, and behavior.
This is a 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. That means if you get a healthy gene from one parent and a faulty gene from your other parent, the faulty gene is always used, since it is the dominant gene.
Onset of prion disease usually occurs between the ages of 35 and 55. Early-stage characteristics often include clumsiness, unsteadiness, and difficulty walking.
7 Steps to Lower Your Risk of Dementia
Research shows more and more...
The development of most dementias is strongly influenced by lifestyle and environmental risks.
Here are seven ways to lower your risk of getting dementia:
1. Keep Seeking Out New Challenges
Scientists don’t exactly know why challenging ourselves to learn new skills protects cognitive function. But they do have some theories:
It's been shown that the growth of new brain cells (neurogenesis) continues throughout our lives, even into old age. The brain is highly plastic, and learning new things leads to positive changes in brain tissue.
Studies continue to show that new neural connections and activity patterns are created when we learn new skills.
You don't have to do any super challenging tasks to get positive benefits. No need to learn a new language, pick up a violin, or play competitive chess.
Keep it simple, try some new ideas, and have fun with it:
- Take a different route into town
- Go to new parks and trails
- Visit with friends in new places
- Listen to a new type of music
- Join an art class or easy dance class
- Do various puzzles like sudoku
What’s most important is that you do something you enjoy.
Constantly challenge yourself and give your brain new and interesting experiences.
Activities that combine brain stimulation with social engagement have been shown to be the most beneficial.
2. Eat a MIND Diet
The Mediterranean diet has been shown to provide a 35% lower Alzheimer's risk.
In the Mediterranean diet, there are 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 vegetables, whole grains, berries, nuts, legumes, beans, fish, poultry, and olive oil.
Foods to avoid are red meat, butter, margarine, pastries, fried foods, and sweets.
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.
We’ve also seen some promising results with that daily glass of wine 😉
3. Get a Good Night’s Sleep
Good, uninterrupted sleep is vital for good brain health. Scientists know now that people who don’t get sufficient sleep are at greater risk of developing various types of dementia.
In fact, researchers in the US recently found that people who slept fewer than five hours a night were twice as likely to develop dementia compared to those who slept six to eight hours a night.
There are many different things that can help with sleep, for example:
- Do exercise and yoga through the week
- Meditate (sitting, lying, and moving)
- Listen to relaxing music or guided visualization
- Drink chamomile tea
- Enjoy a lavender scent
See what works for you. Get into a daily and weekly routine that feels right.
4. Keep Your Cardiovascular System Healthy
Evidence is mounting on the link between heart health and cognitive function. What’s good for your heart is good for your brain.
It’s pretty clear now that middle-age obesity, smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and stress all increase the risk of having dementia later in life. Prevent Brain Injuries
5. Prevent Brain Injuries
Avoid participating in sports or activities with a high risk of brain injury, such as boxing.
And if you do sports like cycling, mountain biking, kitesurfing, or white-water rafting, be sure to wear protective headgear!
6. Stop Smoking
Researchers have shown strong evidence that smoking and second-hand smoke can increase your risk of dementia.
This is probably because the two most common types of dementia (Alzheimer’s and Vascular Dementia) 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.
What’s more, the toxins in cigarette smoke cause inflammation, which has been linked to the development of dementia.
7. Exercise Regularly
...and keeping 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 improves circulation and increases blood flow to the brain.
Of course, you don’t have to do any marathons. Instead, try something you enjoy:
- Brisk walking
- Jogging or running
- Stair climbing
- House cleaning
Doing 30 minutes a day a few days a week is very beneficial.
Exercise machines work well too — treadmills, stationary bikes, elliptical machines, step machines, rowing machines, etc.
And yes, even just doing household chores or gardening has been shown to reduce dementia risk.
No need to overthink it… the key is to simply get the body moving.
To Sum it All Up
Most forms of dementia are not hereditary. A few rare types of dementia can be passed on, but they represent a very small percentage of total dementia cases.
Alzheimer's Disease is by far the most common form of dementia. But fewer than 1% of these cases are caused by a gene mutation — which is the hereditary type of Alzheimer’s.
Having an elderly family member with dementia does not mean that you will get the same affliction.
In most cases, dementia is highly preventable by making specific and ongoing lifestyle changes — adapting our lifestyles as we get older.
You don’t have to make any wild changes, either… just exercise regularly, eat well, and keep the brain thinking in new directions.