So What Actually Causes Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer’s disease affects millions of people every year. And that number is estimated to exponentially increase in the next decade.  Everyone knows about it and that there is currently no cure for it, but what actually causes Alzheimer’s disease?

Like all types of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease is caused by brain cell death.  Progressive brain cell death happens over time, making Alzheimer’s a neurodegenerative disease. The total brain size shrinks with Alzheimer’s disease.  Autopsies on people who had Alzheimer’s disease show plaques and tangles on the brain.

  • Plaques are found between the dying cells in the brain – from the build-up of a protein called beta-amyloid (you may hear the term “amyloid plaques”).
  • The tangles are within the brain neurons – from a disintegration of another protein, called tau.

Researchers still don’t know much more than that.  They aren’t sure why it happens for some people and not others, and they have yet to find a cure that seems to work.  Risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s disease include aging, a family history of Alzheimer’s, and carrying certain genes.  

Apart from those unavoidable risk factors, there are some potentially avoidable risk factors that could lead to Alzheimer’s disease:

  • Factors that increase blood vessel risk – such as diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.
  • Low educational and occupational attachment
  • Prior head injury
  • Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea

In addition to those, eating healthy, getting good exercise, reducing stress, keeping the mind active, and getting good sleep can help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.  

It’s a scary disease and there is only so much that we can do it avoid or prevent it.  As with all diseases and health scares, that’s why it’s important not to focus too much on it or get overwhelmed with anxiety about getting Alzheimer’s.  We can only do our best to stay healthy and active, learning to live resiliently in the face of an unpredictable world.