Overcoming your Fear of Alzheimer's Disease

When Cassidy discussed his diagnoses he said, “I was in denial, but a part of me always knew this was coming.”

Anxiety around Alzheimer’s can be especially keen for those whose blood relatives have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and who have heard that this puts them at higher risk. Cassidy himself is quoted as saying “I feared it would end up that way” when speaking about the death of his mother contributing to his own risk.

Understanding the genetics and taking control of lifestyle factors linked to the disease can help fight the fear of this disease. Experts do believe that family history is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Research shows that anyone who has a parent, sibling or child with Alzheimer’s is more likely to develop it. The risk increases if more than one family member has Alzheimer’s disease.

There are two types of genes present in Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. One type is considered risk genes, which increase the likelihood but does not guarantee the disease will develop. The other type is deterministic genes, which directly cause the disease and guarantee that anyone with them will develop the disease. The latter, the deterministic genes, are very uncommon. Most people don’t realize how very rare they are.

These genes were identified in only a few hundred extended families globally. Causing early-onset dementia, that becomes apparent between one’s late 30s and mid-50s, they are believed to account for under five percent of Alzheimer’s cases.

Regarding risk genes, which increase likelihood but don’t make dementia a certainty, there are several types. APOE-e4 was the first one identified and is still believed to be the one with the most impact. We all inherit APOE genes, in versions e2, e3, and e4, from each parent. Those who inherit one copy of APOE-e4 have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

Two copies of APOE-e4 mean higher risk, but still not a certainty, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, noting that APOE-e4 may cause symptoms to manifest at an earlier age than is usual. The gene is implicated in about a quarter of all Alzheimer’s cases.

Experts now agree that Alzheimer’s is like a lot of other chronic conditions and our lifestyle has a large impact as well. Fortunately, unlike our genes, many of the lifestyle factors are controllable. They include a healthy diet, staying socially connected and  controlling risks for co-morbidities such as heart disease and high blood pressure.

Hearing David Cassidy state that he has simple desires post-diagnosis—“I want to love, I want to enjoy life”—reminds us that a diagnosis of dementia does not change our basic human need to live a good life surrounded by those who love us. As one of my generation's beloved heartthrobs, I know Mr. Cassidy will have millions of fans supporting him as he travels his journey living with dementia. 

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