If you have a loved one with dementia, it can be very difficult to watch them experience this type of cognitive decline. Dementia is an overarching term used to describe different types of memory loss that can impact your mood, decision making and ability to remember things short or long-term. While many people experience memory issues, dementia is most common in older adults. If someone in your family has dementia, from some, it raises the fear that memory issues could be passed down genetically. Marina Novikova, D.O., a behavioral neurologist at Henry Ford Health, breaks down the truth.
“There are many different types of dementia, most caused by other medical conditions rather than a genetic component,” says Dr. Novikova. “Having a stroke, living with untreated sleep apnea or uncontrolled diabetes, and taking certain medications can all contribute to your likelihood of memory loss. Alzheimer’s is the only type of dementia that could be genetic in some cases.”
Alzheimer’s disease is the most well-known type of dementia. It is a progressive disease that causes memory issues that can get worse over time, often leading to a decline in bodily function and death. If you have a first degree relative (a biological sibling or parent) that has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, you are 2-3 times more likely to also be diagnosed.
Diagnosing Alzheimer’s Disease
According to Dr. Novikova, Alzheimer’s doesn’t medically alter your genes, though 25% of population have one copy of a gene variant call APOE-e4. The APOE gene (made up of one copy from mom and one from dad), can determine if you are protected, neutral or predisposed for Alzheimer’s. However, at this time, the American Academy of Neurology does not recommend screening for this gene.
“While most commercial genetic testing kits do check for this gene, we don’t recommend you screen for it,” says Dr. Novikova. “Besides lifestyle modifications, there is nothing that can be done if it is determined that you are predisposed to Alzheimer’s.”
There is a small group of individuals who develop symptoms of Alzheimer’s before age 65. This early onset Alzheimer’s is usually diagnosed between ages 40-60. If your doctor is concerned about this, then in this case, genetic testing may be ordered to evaluate your risk and take steps towards better understanding your health risks.
Minimizing Your Alzheimer’s Risk
You may not have control over whether or not you are predisposed to Alzheimer’s, but you can take control of certain aspects of your life that can delay or even reduce your risk of a diagnosis altogether. Dr. Novikova suggests these ideas of patients with and without dementia:
- Keep your health in check. If you have any other health conditions you are managing such as diabetes, sleep apnea or heart disease, make sure you are actively taking steps to keep healthy. Monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, have regular heart and kidney screenings, and talk with your doctor to see if medication could help you feel better.
- Exercise regularly. Staying active helps keep your whole person in check – mind and body. Exercise gets your heart pumping, supplying oxygen-rich blood to all parts of the body, including your brain. Dr. Novikova recommends aerobic exercises at least four times a week to support your cognitive health.
- Connect with others. Maintaining social connections helps keep the brain stimulated. “There is so much benefit in staying social and connecting with others, whether that is with friends, family or even through small interactions with strangers at the grocery store,” says Dr. Novikova. “Unfortunately, COVID-19 caused a huge decline in these in-person social interactions.” Even if you can’t see family or friends in person, make sure to reach out over the phone or via video calls.
- Stay cognitively engaged. Looking to keep your brain sharp? Keep trying new things! Get creative with painting or crafting. Test your brain power by learning a new language or playing brain games. You can even try setting a goal to read a new book each month.
A Positive Outlook On Your Brain Health
Whether you have a family member with dementia or not, the fear of a diagnosis can take a serious toll on your emotional health. Burnout, stress, anxiety and depression – or any other mood disorder – can impact your brain and memory function over time.
Dr. Novikova uses the example of a freeway to help patients and their families understand how stress impacts brain function: “Your brain is like a three-lane freeway. When you are stressed, that stress takes up the whole left lane of traffic. That means there are now only two lanes available, which can lead to slowdowns or delays. When you are dealing with stress or anxiety, that limits your brain’s functionality. Overtime, this limit can cause memory issues or delays.” Instead of fixating on instances where you have forgotten something or experienced memory issues, turn your attentions towards boosting your emotional health instead.
If you are living in fear of a diagnosis, talk with your doctor to learn more about your risk. Even if you aren’t experiencing any cognitive decline, they can recommend ways to help you optimize your health. If you are over 65, are experiencing symptoms of cognitive decline and have a first degree relative with Alzheimer’s, your doctor can refer you to a neurologist or neuropsychologist to set a baseline for your brain function.
Dr. Marina Novikova is a neurologist who sees patients at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.