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Alzheimer's Risk Factors

Research Shows the Condition May Be More Prevalent Among Some Groups

By Marc Lallanilla

Updated October 01, 2009

(LifeWire) - Given that Alzheimer's disease is on the rise worldwide, it's important to know whether certain Alzheimer's risk factors increase or decrease one's chances for developing the disease. In 2006, according to the CDC, Alzheimer's passed diabetes to become the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States.

More than 5 million people in the United States are now living with the disease, and experts predict that number could climb as high as 16 million by 2050. By 2010, the number of new cases could reach half a million per year.

But who gets Alzheimer's disease, and why? Research has revealed important Alzheimer's risk factors that affect one's chances of developing the disease.

The Role of Age and Gender

The greatest risk factor for Alzheimer's Disease is age. About 13% of people older than 65 have dementia. There are observed differences in gender -- 16% of women 71 years or older have dementia, while that rate is 11% in men of the same age group. Many researchers are quick to note that this difference may have more to do with women's greater longevity than with any gender-based propensity to dementia.

Lifestyle and Race/Ethnicity

A growing body of Alzheimer's research links the disease to lifestyle-related factors, such as obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, which are all associated with a modern Western lifestyle.

In addition, certain racial/ethnic groups in the United States are more prone to the disease than their counterparts abroad. Japanese-American men, for example, have significantly higher rates of Alzheimer's disease than men of comparable age in Japan. Other studies have found higher rates of the disease among African-Americans than among Africans.

There are also studies that address differences between racial/ethnic groups within the United States. The Alzheimer's Association estimates that the rates of dementia may be higher among African-Americans than among whites. African-Americans also have significantly higher rates of high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.

Emotional Health, Mental Activity and Alzheimer's

People with a history of depression also appear to be more vulnerable to Alzheimer's disease. A study from the Netherlands found that the earlier a person experienced symptoms of depression, the more likely they were to develop Alzheimer's later in life.

On the other hand, Alzheimer's is less common among the highly educated. This doesn't appear to be the result of a more health-conscious lifestyle. Rather, some researchers believe it is a beneficial consequence of lots of learning and use of memory among people who have more education.

Experts stress that Alzheimer's risk factors such as age, gender, race/ethnicity, lifestyle, psychological well-being, and education will not necessarily cause or prevent Alzheimer's disease. Understanding their role, however, is an important step in facing the challenges of this disease.

Suggested Reading:

Sources:

"2008 Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figures." alz.org. June 2008. The Alzheimer's Association. 19 Jun. 2008 <http://www.alz.org/national/documents/topicsheet_2008_facts_figures.pdf>.

CDC National Center for Health Statistics. NCHS News Releases. June 11, 2008. NCHS. 19 Jun. 2008 <http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/08newsreleases/mortality2006.htm>.

Geerlings, M.I., den Heijer T., Koudstaal P.J., Hofman A., Breteler M.M. . "History of Depression, Depressive Symptoms, and Medial Temporal Lobe Atrophy and the Risk of Alzheimer's Disease." Neurology 70:15(2008): 1258-1264. <http://www.neurology.org/cgi/content/full/70/15/1258> (subscription).

J. Demirovic, et al. "Prevalence of Dementia in Three Ethnic Groups: The South Florida Program on Aging and Health." Annals of Epidemiology 13(2003): 472–478. (abstract) <http://www.annalsofepidemiology.org/article/S1047-2797(02)00437-4/abstract>.

Landers, Susan J. "Alzheimer's Rates Expected to Climb among Minority Elderly." amednews.com. April 28, 2008. 19 Jun. 2008. <http://www.ama-assn.org/amednews/2008/04/28/hlsb0428.htm>.

Luchsinger, J.A. "Adiposity, Hyperinsulinemia, Diabetes and Alzheimer's Disease: an Epidemiological Perspective." European Journal of Pharmacology 585:1(2008): 119-129. (abstract) <http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6T1J-4S01VHR-1&_user=10&_coverDate=05%2F06%2F2008&_rdoc=15&_fmt=high&_orig=browse&_srch=doc-info(%23toc%234892%232008%23994149998%23687329%23FLA%23display%23Volume)&_cdi=4892&_sort=d&_docanchor=&_ct=23&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=cf62fd328e978ccd5fefc5fb255e2416>

N. Scarmeas, et al. "Education and Rates of Cognitive Decline in Incident Alzheimer's Disease." Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry 77(2006): 308-316. <http://jnnp.bmj.com/cgi/content/abstract/77/3/308>

Ott Alewijn, Monique M.B. Breteler, Frans van Harskamp, Jules J. Claus, Tischa J.M. van der Cammen, Diederick E. Grobbee, Albert Hofman. "Prevalence of Alzheimer's Disease and Vascular Dementia: Association with Education. The Rotterdam Study." British Medical Journal 310:6985(1995): 970-973. <http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/310/6985/970?maxtoshow=&HITS=10&hits=10&RESULTFORMAT=&fulltext=Prevalence+Alzheimer%27s&searchid=1&FIRSTINDEX=0&volume=310&issue=6985&resourcetype=HWCIT>

"Study Yields New Clues for Alzheimer's Disease." National Institute on Aging. September 24, 1996. National Institutes of Health. 19 Jun. 2008. <http://www.nia.nih.gov/NewsAndEvents/PressReleases/PR19960924StudyYields.htm>.

Vas, Chicot J., et al. "Alzheimer's Disease: Of Emerging Importance." WHO Regional Health Forum 6:1(2006). September 4, 2006. 19 Jun. 2008 <http://www.searo.who.int/en/Section1243/Section1310/Section1343/Section1344/Section1355_5309.htm>.


LifeWire, a part of The New York Times Company, provides original and syndicated online lifestyle content. Marc Lallanilla is a New York-based freelance writer and editor. He has written extensively on health, science, the environment, design, architecture, business, lifestyle and travel.

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