Cognitive health, or the healthy function of our brains, slowly declines naturally as we age. The rate it declines, however, is largely within our control.
With a healthy diet and active lifestyle, we can support our brains as we age. But there is also a genetic component to cognitive decline, which explains the onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s.
How genetics play a role
Our genes help to determine how our bodies function in the world we live in. All humans have a different genetic makeup, though we also share a significant amount of traits with our peers. Some cultures or populations are more likely to be predisposed to diabetes or cardiovascular disease, for example. Like with most diseases, however, our genetics may load the gun, but our lifestyles pull the trigger.
Genetics is just one factor that can impact your susceptibility to developing a disease like dementia or Alzheimer’s. Admittedly, though, it is a pretty big factor. We get 1 set of DNA from each of our parents, and there’s no escaping their influence.
APOE and Alzheimer’s/dementia risk
The most common gene associated with late-onset Alzheimer’s disease is a risk gene called apolipoprotein E (APOE).
There are three common forms of the APOE gene: APOE 2, 3, and 4.
APOE-2 reduces your risk of developing late-onset Alzheimer’s, APOE-3 is neutral (doesn’t increase or decrease your risk), and APOE-4 increases your risk as compared to the baseline population.
Remember, we get 2 sets of DNA, 1 from each of our parents, so there’s a chance at inheriting two “bad” genes. This plays a significant role in your increased risk, especially if you have the APOE-4 gene. With 1 APOE-4 gene, your risk increases 2-3x off the baseline population. This isn’t severe, but it is still an increase in risk overall. With 2 APOE-4 genes, however, your risk increases 10-12x.
Testing for APOE genes to determine dementia risk
There is genetic testing you can order that will help determine your risk for Alzheimer’s or dementia. If you have a family history of early-onset Alzheimer’s or dementia (before age 65), it may be worth the testing. Understanding your genetic risk can help you structure your diet and lifestyle to reduce other risk factors.
What else you can do
While genetics certainly appears to play a role in cognitive decline, diet and lifestyle likely contribute even more. Stress and chronic inflammation increase the risk of developing metabolic and cognitive diseases. With diet and lifestyle, we actually have a lot of control over these factors.
First, eat a diet that is high in a variety of whole and unprocessed foods. Make sure you are eating adequate protein, and never eating lonely carbs. This can improve overall micronutrient intake, as well as support balanced blood sugar levels and muscle development.
Next, develop a consistent exercise routine. This can look different for everyone, depending on what you can stay consistent with. Most importantly, find some form of resistance training that you can incorporate into your routine 2-3x per week.
Finally, continue to work your brain. The old adage, “if you don’t use it, you lose it” is true, especially for your brain. The more you can continue to challenge yourself and learn new things, the stronger your brain will become, and the more your risk for dementia will wane. Those crossword puzzles really do help!
Whats the key takeaway?
Genetics do play a big role in cognitive decline as we age, as you can clearly see. But there are still things within our control that can set us up for a better future. What we do now matters most!