Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive nerve ailment that shrinks the brain and causes the brain cells to die. It is the leading cause of dementia, a condition in which the patient gradually loses the function to think, suffers memory loss and a severe loss of social and behavioral skills. Eventually, it makes the person totally dependent on others for day-to-day functioning.
Alzheimer’s is caused by abnormal build-up of proteins in and around the brain. Amyloid is one such protein which can trigger formation of plaques around brain cells. The other culprit protein is tau which can form tangles inside the brain cells through its deposits. Scientists can now confirm that this process begins long before symptoms manifest. As the disease progresses, the number of neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers which send signals between brain cells, also diminishes. Memory loss is usually one of the first tell-tale signs.
What are the known risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease?
Scientists are still trying to put their finger on the exact trigger for Alzheimer’s. However, a clutch of factors are known to elevate the risk of developing this debilitating condition. These include:
- Age: Age remains the single most significant factor, with the risk of Alzheimer’s doubling every 5 years, post-65. However, age is not the only contributor, and early onset of Alzheimer’s affects around one in 20 individuals with the condition.
- Family history: Alzheimer’s disease can at times be inherited, and a single gene can be the culprit. If there is a history of dementia running in the family over generations, more so at a young age, then the risk factor surely gets amplified.
- Down’s syndrome: Those with Down’s syndrome have been found to be more prone to developing Alzheimer’s disease. Down’s syndrome can lead to amyloid plaques to accumulate in the brain, thus increasing the risk of Alzheimer’s.
- Head trauma: Anybody who has suffered a severe head injury at some point, can be at a risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, although this is an area of ongoing research.
- Cardiovascular disease: Certain lifestyle factors linked to heart disease are also known to raise the risk of Alzheimer’s. These factors could include obesity, diabetes, smoking, hypertension, high cholesterol levels, etc.
- Gender: Since women tend to live longer than men, the incidence of Alzheimer’s is higher among women.
- Mild cognitive impairment (MCI): MCI is a condition marked by diminished memory and thinking skills. Those with MCI run an elevated risk of developing dementia, particularly when the primary deficit is memory loss. Mild cognitive impairment is usually managed by large-scale lifestyle changes and strategies to cope with memory loss.
- Air pollution: Recent research also links exposure to air pollution, mainly traffic fumes and wood fires, to a heightened risk of dementia.
- Heavy drinking: Consumption of high levels of alcohol on a regular basis could trigger certain changes in the brain that can lead to early-onset dementia.
- Disturbed sleep: Scientists have also found that poor sleep patterns, like difficulty falling asleep or in maintaining sleep, can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s.
Recent research reveals that a few other factors could also be responsible for triggering dementia. Untreated depression, hearing loss, being a social introvert or a sedentary lifestyle can all contribute to dementia, scientists now say.
Alzheimer’s is a condition that needs both awareness and understanding. While it is a condition that cannot be cured, progression of the disorder can be slowed with treatment, monitoring and help of support groups. At Medica, we provide comprehensive diagnostic and treatment facilities for geriatric disorders.