Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, or progressive disabling memory and cognitive loss. While there are less common genetic forms, most of the time Alzheimer’s disease is acquired. Testing of brains in Alzheimer’s disease shows excessive amyloid-Beta plaques and tau tangles in the brain, and there are great efforts to evaluate methods to avoid or treat the condition. There is no cure and there are significant efforts at developing medications to try to slow the process or improve symptoms.
However, recent scientific evidence suggests that there may be simple common targets to help avoid an increased risk of Alzheimer’s dementia: high blood pressure and diabetes.
While high blood pressure (also known as hypertension) and diabetes are commonly known to be risk factors for stroke or heart attack – both of which are conditions of ischemia (or lack of blood flow) due to narrowing of blood vessels – there is emerging data that they also increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Untreated high blood pressure can cause damage in the small blood vessels that supply deeper areas of the brain where memory and processing are accomplished. With regards to practical implications for Alzheimer’s disease, there is evidence that the use of medications to lower blood pressure can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by a third or more.
Similarly, untreated diabetes can also damage the same small blood vessels in the brain. Beyond this, abnormal blood sugar or insulin levels in the body can cause imbalance in other important chemicals in the brain that affect memory and cognition. High blood sugar also increases inflammation throughout the body, including the brain. Even “pre-diabetes” – where the body’s control of blood sugar is not so impaired to meet the definition for diabetes but also is not considered normal – has been associated with later developing Alzheimer’s dementia.
It is important to make lifestyle changes to reduce the risk of high blood pressure and diabetes, such as staying physically active with regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, and maintaining a healthy weight. You should also be regularly screened for high blood pressure and diabetes. If these conditions are found, prompt treatment could help avoid Alzheimer’s dementia.