My parent has Alzheimer's Disease – Am I going to get it too?

Gary Figiel, MDBy Gary Figiel, MD
Southeastern Geriatric Healthcare Group
Atlanta, Georgia

Member of the national ElderCare Matters Alliance,
Georgia chapter

This is the second most asked question from a patient’s loved one: “Am I going to get it too?” 

The most frequently asked question is: “What is the difference between Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) and Dementia?”

Dementia is an umbrella term for many types of memory loss. AD is a type of dementia and it accounts for about 65 percent of all dementia cases.

Once a family member finds out that his parent has dementia and learns that there is no cure, the immediate response is “Will I get it too?”

Risk Factors

Known risk factors contributing to an increased chance of developing AD include the following:

  • Aging
  • Genetics
  • Female Gender

Age appears to play a major role as a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s Disease. Ninety-eight percent of all cases of Alzheimer’s Disease are “late onset” Alzheimer’s Disease, meaning that the patient is in his mid-60s or older. Simply reaching the age of 90 explains the development of the disease for as many as 50% of individuals.

Genetics also plays a large role, but not as large of a role in late onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Late onset AD has been associated with several genes, the most important being the ApoE4 gene.

If your parent develops AD later in life, your chances of getting it increase only slightly more than someone’s parent who does not or did not have AD.

“Early onset” Alzheimer’s Disease is the classification for those patients developing the disease in their 40s, 50s and early 60s. There are several causative genes associated with early onset AD, and the chances of you developing the disease if your parent had early onset Alzheimer’s Disease increases dramatically.

As with many diseases, females are at increased risk of developing AD over males. There are a number of different theories, but the most widely accepted just happens to be that females live longer.


The good news is that a lot can be done to help prevent Alzheimer’s Disease. Dr. Figiel and the Southeastern Geriatric Healthcare Group support the philosophy that prevention is the key.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is most important to warding off memory loss. Any risk factor for health disease is also a risk factor for developing AD.

Dr. Figiel also follows the four recommendations from the Alzheimer’s Association’s ongoing Maintain the Brain campaign:

  1. Stay Mentally Active. Mentally stimulating activities strengthen brain cells and the connections between them and may even create new nerve cells.
  2. Remain Socially Involved. Social activity not only makes physical and mental activity more enjoyable, but it also can reduce stress levels, which helps maintain healthy connections among brain cells.
  3. Stay Physically Active. Physical exercise is essential for maintaining good blood flow to the brain as well as to encourage new brain cells. It can significantly reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke and diabetes, and thereby protect against those risk factors for AD and other dementias.
  4. Adopt a Brain-Healthy Diet. Research suggests that high cholesterol may contribute to stroke and brain cell damage. A low fat, low cholesterol diet is advisable. There is growing evidence that a diet rich in dark vegetables and fruits, which contain antioxidants, may help protect brain cells.

Over four million Americans have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. Unfortunately, it has been estimated that four million is only about 20% of all existing cases. In years to come, the number of American’s afflicted with this disease will inflate tremendously.

Early diagnosis of AD is the key to stabilizing and prolonging quality of life. Clinical evaluations and care plans completed by qualified geriatric physicians or psychiatrists can help return dignity to many seniors and give their loved ones the tools to cope with an inevitable aging process.

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