What increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease?

Not all risk factors can be eliminated, but many can be controlled to reduce the chance of developing the disease1

Many people worry that they may be at risk of developing Alzheimer’s, especially if they have a close relative with the disease. Scientists have identified several risk factors that are associated with developing Alzheimer’s disease. While it’s impossible to eliminate every single one, particularly things like age and genetics (called nonmodifiable risk factors), many risk factors can be addressed (called modifiable risk factors) and may help reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

Nonmodifiable risk factors1

  • Non-modifiable Alzheimer's disease risk factor chartAge – Increasing age is associated with an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease. The risk of developing Alzheimer’s doubles every 5 years after age 65
  • Family history – People may be more likely to develop the disease if one of their immediate family members was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease
  • Genetics – There are two types of genes that affect whether a person develops Alzheimer’s disease:

    1. Deterministic genes are sufficient on their own to cause Alzheimer’s. Mutated forms of these genes, including the genes for amyloid precursor protein (APP), presenilin-1 (PS-1), and presenilin-2 (PS-2), guarantee that anyone who inherits them will develop the disease. This type of Alzheimer’s disease is often called “familial Alzheimer’s disease” and accounts for less than 5% of all cases.

    2. Risk genes increase the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease; but unlike deterministic genes, they do not necessarily cause the disease to occur. Several risk genes have been identified, but the one that appears to have the greatest effect is the APOE4 gene. This gene can be inherited from either parent, or both parents.

Modifiable risk factors1,2

  • Modifiable Alzheimer's disease risk factor chartHead injury – Preventing a head injury may help reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. There seems to be a link between serious head injury and Alzheimer’s, which is why preventive measures such as helmets and seatbelts are a good idea
  • Lifelong learning and social engagement – Involvement in activities that are mentally and socially stimulating may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. While the reason for the link isn’t clear, factors that may reduce the risk include:
    • Obtaining higher levels of education
    • Working in a stimulating job
    • Performing mentally challenging activities (for example, reading books or doing crosswords)
    • Staying socially connected
  • Heart health – The risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease appears to be increased by many conditions that damage the heart or blood vessels. These include high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and high cholesterol. Your doctor can help you monitor your heart health and address any problems you may have.
  • General healthy aging – There is also evidence that general healthy aging may provide some sort of brain protection. Try to keep time spent exercising, weight, diet, and alcohol and tobacco use within the recommended guidelines to help possibly reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease
Many risk factors can be modified to help reduce the chance of developing Alzheimer’s1,2