As heartbreaking and devastating as Alzheimer’s is, optimism is growing that we can lessen the risk and possibly save ourselves.
Experts now say that whether we develop the disease – the most common form of dementia, accounting for 60 per cent of cases – is not random or fate, nor an inevitable consequence of ageing.
For nearly 40 years, as a medical writer and senior medical correspondent for TV network CNN, I have followed closely the findings on Alzheimer’s and age-related memory loss, including a new surge of research into how to deter, slow or even reverse the pathology and symptoms.
Our vulnerability to dementia is influenced by our genes, but genes are not the final deciders. They can be muted or magnified and partially subdued by lifestyle. This means that people with these genes are more predisposed, but by no means predestined, to develop Alzheimer’s.
Experts now believe it may be possible to curtail the expression of such genes early in the disease process, essentially curing Alzheimer’s before it becomes irreversible. This is a tremendously exciting prospect.
There are about 350,000 Britons with Alzheimer’s, with numbers predicted to double by 2025. Symptoms are rare before the age of 65 – after that, your chances of developing it double every five years.
Science clearly suggests that the daily decisions we make can help build a brain able to function successfully into our 90s, or for an entire lifetime.
GET SMART ABOUT ALCOHOL
A daily cocktail or glass of wine may help delay dementia. Research has found that alcohol is an anti-inflammatory (inflammation promotes Alzheimer’s) and raises good HDL cholesterol, which helps ward off dementia.
Recent work at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Centre in North Carolina found that older people who had eight to 14 alcoholic drinks a week had a 37 per cent lower risk of dementia than non-drinkers.
However, adults who go on occasional binges face a higher risk. A Finnish study showed that adults who binged in midlife at least once a month – drinking, for example, more than five bottles of beer or a bottle of wine at one sitting – were three times more likely to develop dementia, including Alzheimer’s, 25 years later.
THE GENETIC TIMEBOMB
A quarter of you reading this have a specific genetic timebomb making you three to ten times more susceptible to developing Alzheimer’s. The gene is called apolipoprotein E4, or ApoE4. If you inherit a single variant of ApoE4 from one parent, your Alzheimer’s risk triples. If you inherit a double dose of ApoE4 from both parents, your risk rises by ten times or more. Carrying ApoE4 does not doom you to Alzheimer’s, but it is the main known genetic threat.
Discovering your risk entails taking a simple blood test which you can ask for when you have your cholesterol checked at your GP surgery.