Assessing Your Alzheimer’s Risk
BY DR. KENNETH KOSIK
Your risk for Alzheimer’s disease depends, in part, on the decisions you make every day—about what to eat for lunch, whether to hit the gym on the way home and how you choose to relax. But there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and that’s because everyone’s risk factors are different.
When we use the word risk we’re talking about your chance of getting Alzheimer’s disease. Many different things can raise your risk: how old you are, whether you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, how well you sleep and many others. These are your risk factors. The more risk factors you have, the more likely it is that you will develop Alzheimer’s at some point in your life.
Some risk factors you cannot easily change—your family history, for instance, or your education level. Others, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or other health conditions that raise your risk for Alzheimer’s, may require your doctor’s help and some time to change. A third category, the lifestyle habits that raise your risk for Alzheimer’s, are very much under your control.
To help you get a sense of where you stand, I’ve created a quick questionnaire to identify some of the risk factors you may have. The complete quiz is available in my book Outsmarting Alzheimer’s. But these questions will give you an idea of your current risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease in each of these three categories.
Alzheimer’s disease is a long and slowly emerging disease that depends on many different factors. It’s important to know even the risks that you cannot change to understand your overall risk. Here are some questions to gauge those factors:
- Are you 65 or older?
- Has your mother, father, or any siblings been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease?
- Have you experienced any severe stressors (such as divorce, death of a spouse, serious mental or physical illness in a close family member, or loss of a job)?
- Have you ever suffered a concussion or any other brain injury?
- Do you have less than a high school education?
The more “yes” answers you have in this section, the higher your risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.
The healthier your body, the healthier your brain. It’s important to know your numbers and do everything you can to get them under control. If you don’t know your blood pressure or other readings, I strongly encourage you to make an appointment with doctor to find out and monitor them over time.
- Do you have high blood pressure?
- Do you have high cholesterol?
- Do you have pre-diabetes or diabetes?
- Are you overweight?
Again, the more “yes” answers you have in this section, the higher your risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.
If all of us improved what we ate, exercised regularly, made strides to reduce stress, developed a rich web of friendships, and stimulated our brains regularly, we could prevent up to a third of Alzheimer’s disease cases. Our lifestyles can help us lessen the likelihood of facing preventable health problems like obesity and diabetes, too.
- Do you exercise regularly?
- Do you consume fruits and vegetables every day?
- Do you challenge your brain?
- Is your sleep restful?
- Are you able to manage stress?
- Do you have a rich social network?
- Are you a nonsmoker?
In this section, the more “no” answers you have, the higher your risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.
This questionnaire does not give you a diagnosis. Nor does a high risk mean you will inevitably get Alzheimer’s disease. Instead, this simply gives you a clue where to start making changes to reduce your risk for developing this terrible disease.
The most effective brain health program for you will be different than that of your neighbor or your coworker or even your cousin, because your risk factors are not the same. If you have high cholesterol, it’s most important for you to cut back on saturated and trans fats, get in some vigorous exercise and talk to your doctor about cholesterol-lowering medication. On the other hand, let’s say your cholesterol and blood pressure are normal, but you suffer from insomnia. Then you’d incorporate strategies to boost mood, lower stress and improve sleep. Or let’s say you want to exercise, but you have arthritis in your knees. Then weight-bearing movements like dancing and jogging might be out of the question, but swimming or yoga may offer what you need.
The point is: Your family history, current state of health and current lifestyle are all important ingredients that help determine the best brain health recipe for you.
Adapted from OUTSMARTING ALZHEIMER’S: What You Can Do to Reduce Your Risk by Kenneth S. Kosik, MD, with Alisa Bowman, A Reader’s Digest Book, copyright © 2015 by The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc. Used by permission of Trusted Media Brands, Inc., New York. Available wherever books are sold.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Since 2004, Kenneth S. Kosik, MD, has been the Harriman Professor of Neuroscience Research and Co-Director of the Neuroscience Research Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Previously, he was a professor of neurology and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School, and a senior neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where he was one of the founding physicians of the Memory Disorders Clinic. His lifelong work is research into the cause and treatment of neurodegeneration, particularly Alzheimer’s disease. His study of a group of interrelated families in a rural mountain town in Colombia who suffer from early onset Alzheimer’s has been the subject of several documentaries. Dr. Kosik also founded and served as Medical Director of the non-profit Cognitive Fitness and Innovative Therapies (CFIT), a model “brain shop” that helped clients maintain and improve their cognitive function. Dr. Kosik, who received his medical degree from the Medical College of Pennsylvania and served as chief resident at Tufts New England Medical Center, has been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and on CNN as an expert on brain health. He lives and works in Santa Barbara, California.
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