Inflammation, Genes, and Hypertension All Contribute to Alzheimer's Risk

While you can't control your genes, you can improve the other two and lower your risk of dementia.

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You might think of Alzheimer's disease as a genetic condition that you can do nothing to avoid. But that may not be the case. New research published today in the Archives of General Psychiatry suggests that Alzheimer's is partly driven by inflammation, a process that we do have some control over. In the study of 206 volunteers whose parents developed dementia late in life, Danish researchers found that, compared with those whose parents didn't have Alzheimers, the volunteers were more likely to have high blood pressure and high levels of inflammatory proteins called cytokines.

While the researchers note that 60 percent of an individual's Alzheimer's risk appears to be driven by genes, the rest may be due to changeable lifestyle factors. The researchers write, "Our study shows that high blood pressure and an innate pro-inflammatory cytokine response in middle age significantly contribute to Alzheimer's disease. It is important to realize that early interventions could prevent late-onset Alzheimer's disease." These interventions include screening for:

Hypertension: About 40 percent of those with a parental history of Alzheimer's had high blood pressure—defined as having either a systolic blood pressure of 139 mm Hg or a diastolic blood pressure of 89 mm Hg—compared with 29 percent of those who didn't have parents with the disease. High blood pressure appears to speed the development of beta amyloid plaque in the brain, a hallmark of Alzheimer's.

[Read: How to lower your blood pressure with the DASH diet.]

Inflammation: Pro-inflammatory cytokines were higher in the offspring of Alzheimer's patients than in the control group. Cytokines are thought to contribute to the development of dementia, though it's not known exactly how.

[Here's a diet that will help stave off inflammation.]

Clogged arteries: The ankle-brachial index—which screens for artery disease by measuring the ratio of blood pressure in the lower legs to blood pressure in the arms—tended to be lower in those whose parents had Alzheimer's. This simple, noninvasive test can help alert doctors to your increased risk of both heart disease and Alzheimer's. The protein beta amyloid appears to be involved in the development of plaque in both the brain and the arteries, so taking steps to reduce your heart disease risk may also protect you from Alzheimer's.

[Consider 6 ways to keep arteries clear and ward off heart disease.] [Slide Show: 6 ways to protect yourself against alzheimer's disease.]