The onset of dementia in a loved one such as a parent can be frightening and worrisome to you or your family. Information slowly begins to slip away, such as names, places, and memory. Your loved one may or may not even remember that you’re related. All of these factors make dementia a disease that can be difficult to manage, and you’re left wondering if you’ve inherited the disease yourself, or if your children may inherit it. But is it really hereditary? The answer is yes and no, and here’s why.
Age Is A Huge Factor
Individuals over the age of 65 begin to develop the risk of dementia, and the older you get, the greater the risk becomes. Our bodies age, and unfortunately the brain is no different. The tissues, nerve endings, and systems begin to age as well, causing misfires in nerve signals and other complications.
As your body ages, other systems begin to break down as well, such as the cardiovascular system, causing decreased blood flow and increased risk of clotting or lack of oxygen. It is important as we age to remember to take care of our bodies so that these systems can work properly throughout our lives.
The Cause Of The Dementia Can Vary
Dementia is really a blanket term for a number of conditions which cause, well, dementia. Huntington’s disease is an inherited disease of the brain, causing extreme dementia and eventual loss of motor functions. Alzheimer’s disease is not inherited in a large majority of cases, though there have been cases where it’s been found to have been passed on by family members. Alzheimer’s is common in people in their 70s and 80s, but even if you have a parent or grandparent with the disease, that doesn’t necessarily mean you will inherit it yourself.
Another widespread cause of dementia is a stroke, which is not any kind of inherited disease. A stroke occurs when the brain suffers a sudden lack of blood, and therefore oxygen, usually due to some form of blockage either from a blood clot or other obstruction. The brain cells begin to die in minutes, and if not addressed quickly and efficiently, the loss of precious oxygen to those cells can do irreversible damage, often causing dementia.
Alzheimer’s and stroke are the two leading causes in the US of dementia, however, there are less common causes such as brain injuries due to physical trauma or certain other rare diseases.
Certain Inherited Genes Can Increase Risk
While dementia overall is not necessarily inherited, certain groups of people with specific gene variations can inherit just the right combination of genes to develop dementia.
This, of course, depends on your family history and whether or not the genes have been passed on, or in fact, even found in your bloodline.
There are two different types of genes which affect whether or not a person inherits a disease or disorder:
- Risk Genes: Genes that are carried, putting the person “at risk” of developing the disease, but don’t necessarily mean it will happen. There are several types of risk genes that increase the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s, for instance, but this doesn’t mean the inheritor is guaranteed to develop the disease.
- Deterministic Genes: These genes are directly responsible for causing the onset of a particular disease or disorder. There are in fact very rare genes that have been found to be directly linked to causing Alzheimer’s in adults, but as stated, these are very rare and haven’t been found on a large scale.
Human gene testing is difficult and expensive, but doctors are continuing to research the causes and variations of dementia and associated diseases to pinpoint where they come from and how to treat them.
Can I Be Tested For Those Genes?
The short answer is yes, there is genetic testing that will help predict whether or not you may inherit the genes that cause dementia. If you have a loved one that suffers from dementia, you both may need to get tested so that the gene can be isolated from their DNA and compared with your own, to see if you’ve inherited the trait. Many of the tests, however, are only available under very specific conditions, such as controlled studies or research situations. Be sure to explore your options when you consider getting tested.
You Can Work To Prevent Dementia
As with any ailment, the proper diet and care for your body can keep your brain and body healthy, perhaps reducing your risk of developing dementia. Since stoke is such a huge risk factor for dementia, taking care of your heart and vascular system by eating right and exercising daily can reduce your risk of developing harmful blood clots. Your brain also requires certain nutrients, and keeping it healthily supplied with these nutrients can extend the healthy lifespan of your brain.
Identifying the early onset of symptoms can help pinpoint dementia and help you manage it before it gets out of control. If you or your loved one begin to experience frequent memory loss, difficulty speaking the right words, sudden irritation or mood changes, or difficulty completing simple everyday tasks, it may be worth a trip to your doctor. The earlier the dementia is discovered, the earlier the cause can be discovered and managed with medication or therapy.
The answer to the hereditary question is yes and no. While there are certain genes that can directly cause, or increase the risk of dementia, these are usually rare. Alzheimer’s and stroke (or clotting/blood/oxygen loss to the brain) are the leading causes, and the risk of stroke or clotting can be reduced with the proper diet and regular exercise.
If you are worried that you may be at risk for dementia because of a loved one who is suffering from it, you request that your doctor perform (or refer you to someone who can perform) genetic testing to see if you’re at risk.
We don’t know much about dementia, but continued research will hopefully begin to yield further answers in the future on specific genes and diseases and how to treat dementia. As of now, there are few options for treating dementia, mostly including medications for managing the chemical signals which drive memory and motor function.