Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative brain disease that slowly kills brain cells and tangles neurons over time. It’s most common in older adults, though it’s not a natural part of aging. As with many diseases that affect the brain, the causes are not well understood, though there are a number of theories and statistical correlations that point toward some potential causes.
Genetic factors. There does seem to be a genetic link associated with Alzheimer’s disease, though the exact cause isn’t known in the vast majority of patients. Scientists have identified a rare genetic mutation that’s positively linked to Alzheimer’s disease, meaning that if you have this mutation, you will develop Alzheimer’s, and generally much earlier than the disease normally appears. According to the Mayo Clinic, however, “These mutations account for less than 5 percent of Alzheimer’s disease. Most genetic mechanisms of Alzheimer’s among families remain largely unexplained.” Still, family history can be an important risk factor. If someone in your family has had the disease, especially a parent or sibling, you at a higher risk for developing Alzheimer’s.
Lifestyle. While there’s no one lifestyle factor that scientists can point to as a cause for Alzheimer’s disease, there are several components that seem to impact your risk of developing the disease. Vascular issues are known to cause dementia, and it’s believed that they can also lead to Alzheimer’s disease. The most common vascular risks include diabetes, obesity, hypertension, smoking and not getting sufficient exercise. On the flip side, there does seem to be a lower incidence or later onset of Alzheimer’s disease in individuals who continue to learn throughout life, and who love cognitive challenges and mental stimulation. It’s not clear why this lowers your risk, but researchers believe that it’s because this type of behavior creates many more neural pathways in your brain, so even more would have to be destroyed before it significantly impacts your overall function.