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Rebecca Doig, a 31-year-old Australian woman, recently gave birth to her first child—a baby girl—but she has no recollection of it. Around the time she found out she was pregnant, Doig also learned that she has Alzheimer’s. Doig has an extremely rare genetic form of the disease that caused her condition to deteriorate so quickly that she doesn’t recognize her baby, and now needs around-the-clock care. Just how rare are we talking? According to Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph, she is believed to be the first woman with this particular genetic strain of Alzheimer’s. She is also one of the youngest people ever diagnosed with the condition.
Though you can probably breathe a sigh of relief regarding your own chances of getting Alzheimer’s before you have kids, it’s not quite so clear-cut whether you’ll retire with all your mental faculties intact. According to Dr. Brandon Colby, MD, author of Outsmart Your Genes, roughly one in 1,000 people will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s before the age of 50. When the disease strikes before the age of 65, it is called early-onset Alzheimer’s, and accounts for somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of all Alzheimer’s cases. In the U.S., that’s around 400,000 people. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, an estimated 5.2 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s. But by 2030, the Alzheimer’s Association expects to see one million new cases a year. The reason: aging baby boomers and ever-increasing life spans. While it’s estimated that 10 percent of people between the ages of 65 and 74 have Alzheimer’s, the average age at diagnosis is 80.
Whereas Rebecca Doig’s form of Alzheimer’s is purely genetic, and there was nothing she could do to prevent it, the more common forms of Alzheimer’s are a mixture of genes and lifestyle, says Colby. And that’s a good thing: Even when there’s a family history of Alzheimer’s disease, the choices you make in life may be able to slow the disease’s progression or help prevent it altogether, Colby explains.
According to a recent study published in the Archives of Neurology, for instance, eating a heart-healthy, Mediterranean-style diet that includes olive oil, nuts, fish, cruciferous vegetables, tomatoes, dark leafy greens and fruit may drastically lower your risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease. The research found that people who adhered most closely to this diet, which is also low in red meat, high-fat dairy and saturated fat, were 40 percent less likely to develop the condition. Scientists already knew that heart disease and Alzheimer’s are linked. According to ABC News, people with high cholesterol in their 40s and 50s are three to five times more likely to develop dementia in their 60s and 70s. Another way to lower your risk? Steer clear of head injuries. That one in 1,000 chance of getting Alzheimer’s before 50 that we mentioned? It does not apply to football players. According to Colby, retired NFL players’ risk of developing Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia before 50 jumps to one in 53. In the general population, minor head injuries like concussions double the risk of memory problems later in life. But if you’re one of the 20 percent of people who carry the APOE4 gene that’s linked to Alzheimer’s susceptibility, head injuries up your risk tenfold. If Alzheimer’s runs in your family, Colby suggests pointing your kids towards safer non-contact sports (and wearing a helmet, of course, on bikes and motorcycles).
Without getting tested, it’s hard to know just what your risk of developing the disease really is since, according to Peter Davies, PhD, Resnick Professor of Alzheimer's disease research at Albert Einstein School of Medicine, the majority of middle-aged patients do not have an obvious family history. My paternal grandfather died from Alzheimer’s in his late 70s, but otherwise my family tree is unriddled. As my dad approaches the age my grandfather was when he was diagnosed, I do sometimes worry that he’ll get it, too. Not only are they the spitting image of one another, their mannerisms are identical, as are their health profiles. My grandfather had a quadruple bypass; my father, a triple. Though Colby advocates for genetic testing, I’d rather not know unless I were certain I could stop it. Since there’s no cure, all I can do is take every precaution to reduce my own risk. I’m happy to know that everything I do to keep my cholesterol down and my arteries clear will hopefully help keep my mind sharp, too. While it’s still no guarantee, I choose to remain optimistic. After all, a positive outlook does help protect against heart disease—and since what’s good for the heart is generally good for the head, right now, it’s my best defense.