Have a Parent with Dementia? Your Symptoms May Show Up 6 Years Earlier

Kelly’s mother (85) has had dementia for eight years and her grandmothers on both parent’s sides also had it. Naturally, Kelly is concerned for herself and her children, and the likelihood that they will develop the disease. She has read that family history is a factor, but not the only one. Kelly is proactive in doing what she can to stave off the disease by taking care of herself, eating right, and reading and exercising her brain regularly. Still, she wonders if it is inevitable that she will succumb to it herself and, and if so, will she be as old as her family members were when they were diagnosed?

Kelly in our example is doing the right things by taking good care of herself, whether or not she will develop dementia in the future. As mentioned, family history is only one of the factors that influences a person’s chance of developing dementia. Age (as we will discuss), variations in certain genes, and medical conditions, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, are among some of the other factors.

Age Raises the Risk of Dementia More Than Family History

Dementia affects an estimated 50 million people worldwide, and there are nearly 10 million new cases every year. According to Harvard Health, studies of family history say that if you have a close relative who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s—the most common form of dementia in older adults—your risk increases by about 30%. This is a relative risk increase, meaning a 30% hike in your existing risk.

Age raises the chance of dementia more than family history, however. People in their 70s are more than twice as likely as those in their 60s to get the disease!

“People think that if their dad or aunt or uncle had dementia, they are doomed. But, no, that’s not true,” says Dr. Gad Marshall, assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. “Even though family history adds to the overall risk, age still usually trumps it quite a bit. It means your risk is higher, but it’s not that much higher, if you consider the absolute numbers.”

Symptoms Show Up Earlier for Those Who Have Relatives with Dementia

Family history may not play as huge of a role as we thought in whether we develop dementia, but it can play a role in WHEN we develop the disease. Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis studied a large group of people with dementia who had at least one parent who had been diagnosed with the disease. Using medical records and interviews with participants and knowledgeable friends or family members, the researchers determined the age at onset of dementia for each participant and his or her parent or parents. Those with one parent with dementia developed symptoms an average of 6.1 years earlier than the parent had. If both parents had dementia, the age at onset was 13 years earlier than the average of the parents’ ages at diagnosis.

Why Participants Received Diagnoses at an Earlier Age

Changes over the past few decades in diagnostic criteria and social attitudes toward cognitive decline in later life partially explain why the study participants received diagnoses at younger ages than their parents, the researchers say. But other factors were likely at play as well.

According to Dr. Gregory Day, assistant professor of neurology and researcher at the Charles F. and Joanne Knight Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, “(n)owadays there’s less of a tendency to brush off confusion and forgetfulness as signs of getting older. People who watched their parents decline with dementia are especially unlikely to dismiss such concerns. What’s most interesting, I think, is that people with two parents with dementia developed the disease much younger than people with one parent. That suggests that it’s more than just changes in diagnostic criteria or social attitudes. People with two parents with dementia may have a double dose of genetic or other risk factors that pushes them toward a younger age at onset.”

Using Study Results to Study the Effects of Genes on Dementia

As part of the study at Washington University, the researchers also analyzed a large set of known risk factors for dementia. They studied heritable factors such as ethnicity, race, genetic variants, and which parent had the disease. They also looked at education, body mass index, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, blood pressure, blood cholesterol level, depression, tobacco use, excessive alcohol use, and histories of traumatic brain injury. By learning more about the effect of these factors, age, and family history on Alzheimer’s disease, researchers hope to be able to develop novel treatments.

Living a Healthier Life Can At least Stave Off Dementia

Similar to Kelly in our example, dementia may be in your future or it may not, whether or not you have family members who had the disease. Many of us don’t realize it, but we have more control over our cognitive health than is commonly known. We just have to take certain steps—ideally, early and often—to live a healthier lifestyle.

According to the Lancet, a medical journal, around 35% of dementia cases might be prevented if people do things including exercising. The Lancet report explains how there is increasing evidence that people—even those who inherit genes that put them at greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s in later life—can improve their chances by adopting lifestyle changes. Read it here. So, make it a point to take good care of yourself to better your chances of living a longer, dementia-free life!

Planning for the future

Persons with dementia and their families face special legal and financial needs. At the Farr Law Firm, we are dedicated to easing the financial and emotional burden on those with dementia and their loved ones. We help protect the family’s hard-earned assets while maintaining your loved one’s comfort, dignity, and quality of life by ensuring eligibility for critical government benefits. If someone in your family has been diagnosed with dementia, please call us as soon as possible to make an appointment for a consultation:

Elder Law Attorney Fairfax: 703-691-1888
Elder Law Attorney Fredericksburg: 540-479-1435
Elder Law Attorney Rockville: 301-519-8041
Elder Law Attorney DC: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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