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Are Memory Problems Hereditary?

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This is a review of a recent article by Michelle Braun, Ph.D., ABPP, a Yale- and Harvard-trained board-certified clinical neuropsychologist and brain health expert, in Psychology Today  entitled “Are Memory Problems Hereditary?  Optimize Your Memory, Regardless of Your Genetics”.

Optimize your memory, regardless of your genetics
Many people with a family history of memory problems wonder whether they will also experience memory problems (beyond those associated with normal aging). Although there are multiple considerations in determining the hereditary risk of memory problems, two questions provide some guidance:

What type of memory problems does your family member have? 
Their memory problems might be caused by a sudden medical event (such as a stroke, traumatic brain injury, or infection)  or to potential reversible factors (such as depression, sleep disorders, vitamin deficiencies,or thyroid issues, factors that are generally not hereditary.  However, memory problems related to Alzheimer’s disease, or memory problems without a clear cause and with concerning symptoms (such as forgetting well-known information, difficulty performing well-known tasks, and progressive worsening) may be more hereditary.


Optimize your memory, regardless of your genetics
Is your family member a first- second- or third- degree relative?
A 2019 study showed that people with one first-degree relative (a parent, sibling, or child) with Alzheimer’s had nearly twice the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Having two first-degree relatives was linked to a nearly 4 times greater risk, and having four first-degree relatives was linked to a 15 times greater risk.

Conclusions of the Study
There is no direct genetic cause for 99 percent of cases of Alzheimer’s. However, the Apolipoprotein (APOE) gene on chromosome 19 has been linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. The APOE gene assists with cholesterol transport and helps clear beta-amyloid protein from the brain. (Beta-amyloid protein is naturally occurring in the brains of all individuals, but has been linked to Alzheimer’s when it clumps together abnormally.)

The APOE gene
The APOE gene has two alleles, or genetic sequences: one inherited from each parent. One of the alleles—“e4″ or “epsilon 4”—is linked to a higher risk of Alzheimer’s, and is present in about 20% of the population. Having one copy of the APOE e4 allele increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s two to five times, and having two copies of the allele (one from each parent, which is present in about 2% of the population) increases the risk 9 to 12 times.


= = => click here to read an article by the Mayo Clinic about the APOE gene > = = =


How important are genetics (the APOE gene) in the development of Alzheimer’s?
In spite of everything, about 50 percent of individuals with one copy of APOE e4 do not go on to develop Alzheimer’s.  Conversely, the absence of genetic risk factors or a family history of memory problems isn’t a guarantee of protection against Alzheimer’s. About 60 percent of people with Alzheimer’s do not have a genetic risk and about 75% do not have a family history of the disease.

Alzheimer Association’s position on genetic testing
Alzheimer Association does not support genetic testing to determine the risk for the disease.  The fact that Alzheimer’s is linked to several non-genetic factors is one of many reasons for this decision.  A person genuinely concerned about their dementia risk, or the risk of a loved one, based on family history, should consider making lifestyle changes regardless of genetic status. Growing evidence indicates that people can reduce their risk of cognitive decline by adopting key lifestyle habits.”

In conclusion, optimize your memory, regardless of your genetics

You can minimize your risk of Alzheimer’s regardless of your heredity
A recent groundbreaking randomized controlled trial—the FINGER study (the Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability)—has added to a growing body of research showing that a healthy lifestyle can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, regardless of heredity or family history. The FINGER study showed that a combination of exercise, a brain-healthy diet, cognitive training, and vascular risk management (such as improving blood pressure and cholesterol) resulted in a 30% reduction in cognitive decline after just two years. Those benefits continued for two more years after the study, and are still being tracked. Even more exciting, FINGER showed that people with the APOE e4 gene had the same level of reduced cognitive decline as those who did not have a genetic risk for Alzheimer’s.


A proactively healthy lifestyle holds the greatest promise in reducing risk of developing Alzheimer’s
Given that the cellular changes related to Alzheimer’s can develop 30 years or more before symptoms begin, it has become increasingly clear that we are unlikely to successfully treat it with a medication that is administered decades after the disease has taken hold. Years of research shows that a proactively healthy lifestyle holds the greatest promise in reducing risk of the disease. There is strong evidence that individuals with Alzheimer’s who had healthy habits may have delayed the expression of their symptoms, sometimes by several years.

Five factors maximize memory
The five factors with the greatest ability to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s include cardiovascular exercise, a brain healthy dietcognitive and social engagementlowering stress, and enhancing sleep.


A Game-changer
The knowledge that lifestyle factors are equally as powerful for individuals with a family history of memory problems and/or a genetic risk for Alzheimer’s is a game changer. This information provides hope and guidance in the context of myths that overemphasize the impact of heredity on memory.


Build a healthy brain:  engage in a brain-healthy lifestyle
As 2021 begins, let’s refresh our motivation to engage in a brain-healthy lifestyle, empowered by the knowledge that it is never too early and never too late to build a healthy brain, regardless of our heredity.


I hope you enjoyed this article on the interesting topic of Memory Problems – Are They Hereditary?   If you did, you might want to try some of the suggestions offered for building a healthy brain by engaging in a brain-healthy lifestyle.   And please leave us a comment on the results you obtained.


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Comments (2) on "Are Memory Problems Hereditary?"

  1. Your post has been encouraging. Thank you for addressing this article written by Michelle Braun. I had always considered genetic risk for Alzheimer as an inevitable path for suffering this disease. But knowing that our lifestyle plays a huge role is very encouraging. Thank you for this post at the beginning of this year.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Abel.  I’m glad you enjoyed our blog.  Yes, lifestyle plays a huge role in alleviating memory problems.

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