Comfort for Those Concerned About Inheriting Alzheimer's

Eric J. Hall Health Guide
  • Fear, it seems, runs rampant in families with a loved one affected by Alzheimer's disease. Those caring for a declining parent or grandparent, those tending to the needs of a brother or sister, those with other blood ties to a relative with Alzheimer's disease-so many of them share the same burning question: Am I next?


    I can't even count the number of times this very question was posed to me or to my staff while we stood at the Alzheimer's Foundation of America's exhibit booth at the AARP convention in Boston earlier this month. Hands down, it ranked as the most frequently asked question. And each time, it was positioned in a tone that exemplified more than plain curiosity. Raw emotion was overflowing here.

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    No matter how many times people asked, no matter how many times we told variations of the same answer, I welcomed the question again and again from attendees. People need to ask about Alzheimer's disease. We need open discussion. We need to dispel myths. We need to raise awareness about this disease.


    And, most importantly, we need to address the fear factor-so that it doesn't hold back people who really have memory problems from proper diagnosis, and the treatment and care they need, and so that blood relatives living with an unfounded fear of Alzheimer's disease have one less thing to worry about as they face the 24/7 challenges of caring for a loved one.


    So simply stated, for those concerned about family patterns related to Alzheimer's disease, the answer is this: Family history accounts for only a small fraction of cases. Early-onset familial Alzheimer's disease is the rarest form of Alzheimer's disease, occurring at a young age-between 30 and 60-and following an obvious inheritance pattern. It is estimated that less than five percent of all cases of Alzheimer's disease are early onset familial Alzheimer's disease. In addition, a single gene or a genetic pattern poses a risk factor late-onset Alzheimer's disease (called late-onset when it occurs in older people), but obvious genetic causes make up only a small proportion of cases.


    Rather, by far the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer's disease is age. The risk increases progressively, with the likelihood of developing Alzheimer's disease doubling every five years after age 65. Alzheimer's disease affects nearly one in two people aged 85 or older.


    So at a convention that draws mostly seniors, I feel that AFA's presence accomplished some important results. For one, we answered a question that is concerning so many people who had or have a blood relative with Alzheimer's disease. Secondly, we were able to educate them on other issues: we spoke to them about successful aging, letting them know that there is increasing research showing that lifestyle choices-things like walking, running, crossword puzzles, stress management, and eating right can help delay the onset or progression of Alzheimer's disease-a good idea for all of us. We urged them to voice any concerns they might have about their own memory loss to their physician or other healthcare professionals.


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    And we encouraged them to keep asking questions. Ask, ask, ask. The more people know about Alzheimer's disease (no different than with other diseases), brain health, caregiving and national and local support services, the more empowered we are to deal with whatever lies ahead.

Published On: September 19, 2007