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  • Writer's pictureNick Allen

Avoiding Alzheimer's

Diseases can be as tough on the family as they are on the patient, and there is perhaps no greater example of this than Alzheimer’s disease. The exact causes of Alzheimer’s are still being heavily researched, but the illness is thought to be caused by harmful protein plaques that lead to the death of neurons in the brain. This commonly presents as memory loss that gets progressively worse, a symptom known as dementia. Ultimately, the damage to the brain is so significant that physical function is impaired and death results. There is no known treatment for Alzheimer’s.

There are almost 6 million people that live with the disease in the United States, and many more than that are impacted by a loved one with Alzheimer’s. Organizations like the Alzheimer’s Association have long lists of celebrity supporters, because anyone personally familiar with the disease knows how impactful it is. I’d highly recommend watching the short video below if you’re unfamiliar.

This is an immensely complicated disease, and we will have much more to say on it in the future. This post is simply an introduction to explain why you really want to avoid Alzheimer’s and to offer some quick pointers on how to reduce your risk.

It’s important to know that Alzheimer’s has a genetic component, but it’s equally important to recognize that genetics are often a small part of the picture. On a basic level, it’s worth knowing your apolipoprotein E (APOE) status. This gene has three variants known as ε2, ε3, and ε4. ε3 is considered the “neutral” variant, and is most common. ε2 is associated with lower Alzheimer’s risk, while ε4 is associated with higher Alzheimer’s risk. Each of us has two copies of this gene, one from each parent.

Many people simply have two copies of the ε3 variant, leaving their Alzheimer’s risk at baseline. Some have one copy of ε2 and one copy of ε3 - these folks have a slightly lower chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease. On the contrary, someone with one copy of ε3 and one copy of ε4 will have increased risk. People with two copies of ε4 have the highest risk of Alzheimer’s as they age.

Again, the point here isn’t for people with an ε4 copy to feel doomed or for people with an ε2 copy to feel invincible. It’s simply good information to have so you can determine how aggressive you want to be with your preventive measures. Regardless of your APOE status, you have a significant amount of control over your chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

The message I want to get across in this introduction to Alzheimer’s is that this disease, though unique in its consequences, is fundamentally no different than the others we talk about often. Diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s all have their roots in metabolic dysfunction. The same components - glucose, lipids, inflammation, mitochondrial function, etc. - are at the core of the problem in each of these diseases. The difference is simply whether these dysregulations lead to kidney failure, tumor growth, atherosclerotic plaques in the arteries, or neuron death in the brain.

This also means that the same tactics used to avoid the common killers should be effective in preventing Alzheimer’s. Indeed, exercise is perhaps the most useful tool we have for slowing plaque buildup in the brain. Additionally, Dr. Richard Isaacson, Director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell, emphasizes the importance of proper nutrition, getting adequate sleep, and keeping stress levels under control. As with other diseases, specific strategies should be tailored to the individual.

We’ll dig deeper into some potential tactics in future posts, but I hope that those of you who made it this far will have a greater understanding of Alzheimer’s disease and what it can do to individuals and their families. Beyond this, you should feel confident that you can put yourself in a good position to avoid ever suffering from this devastating disease. It’s never too early (or too late) to start.


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