Is Dementia Hereditary?

Members article

By Jane Verity © dementiacareinternational

People who have a close relative with dementia may ask themselves, ‘Is this hereditary? Will I get it too?’ This question is understandably connected with great fear and uncertainty.

When we hear about Alzheimer’s being hereditary, it is related to a particular gene that is connected with the 21st chromosome. However, just because a person has this gene, it does not mean it will manifest in dementia symptoms. David Snowdon, an epidemiologist in charge of an independent study on Alzheimer’s involving 678 nuns, found that while two siblings shared the same Alzheimer gene, one or both may never develop the symptoms. (For more information follow this link to read The Nun Study)

In reality, research has shown that there is only a 2 – 5% chance that Alzheimer’s has a genetic link. In many situations, there is no direct link between a person’s neurological changes and the degree of dementia symptoms. Dementia is not a disease, but an umbrella term to describe a group of symptoms such as memory loss and confusion. There are over 70 different conditions that can cause dementia symptoms.

As we age, we become more conscious of when we forget names, memories, or misplace familiar objects because of society’s strong focus on Alzheimer’s and dementia. It is only natural that many older people may make a connection with their personal experience and the symptoms of dementia. This is in contrast to younger people who may place little importance on the experience of forgetting a person’s name or misplacing their keys.

Many things in our daily lives play a part in your ability to use our memory. One factor is that thousands of pieces of information bombard your senses every minute of the day, making it difficult to be focused in the moment. You may also be completing one activity whilst already thinking about the next task.

Here is an example of what may have been interpreted as dementia symptoms:

Returning home from grocery shopping, you are busy packing the items away into the refrigerator while thinking about what to cook for dinner or who is taking the kids to football practise. Your car keys also go into the fridge along with the other items.

As you did not focus your attention on what you were doing, you have no idea where you have placed your car keys. The next time you need to go out, you will be running around looking for the keys. When someone else finds your keys in the fridge you may ask yourself, ‘Is this a sign of Alzheimer’s, am I getting dementia?’  This is not the case. It is simply a question of you not being focused on what you were doing.

Having a constant fear of developing dementia can be another factor in the way our memory works. This can result in a spiralling chain reaction where we are preoccupied with the times where we have forgotten or misplaced things. This way of thinking tends to result in a negative self-fulfilling prophecy. It has also been found that fear can make a person develop ‘phantom’ dementia even if they have no supporting neurological impairment.

If you are concerned you may be experiencing dementia symptoms, our first recommendation is that you have a thorough medical check. This will exclude any underlying physical condition such as dehydration, constipation, infection, or medication poisoning.

The key is then to shift your focus from the few times you experience challenges with your memory to everything that you are still managing, remembering and doing. Be gentle on yourself and ensure you make time to enjoy the things that rekindle your spirit and bring you joy. When you engage in an activity you really love, you maximise your potential to create new pathways in the brain. If you like doing crosswords or Sudoku, then do these activities often. However, if they are a painful chore you do only because you think they are good for your brain, you would be better off engaging in something you enjoy such as dancing or learning another language.

To mobilise the brain, here are two other useful suggestions.

  1. Use positive affirmations just before you go to sleep and before rising in the morning. Program your brain by repeating to yourself, ‘My memory improves every day. It is easy for me to remember.’ You can also keep a small Spark of Life Diary that describes in point form three positive things, no matter how small, that highlight your memory successes each day.
  2. You can also engage your family and friends by asking them to shift their focus from what you might forget, to instead reinforce every positive situation and achievement through simple descriptive appreciation.

Apart from knowing that Alzheimer’s only has a minor genetic link, the most important thing you can do is to have a positive outlook and shift your focus to your strengths and abilities.

Further Reading

  • The Nun Study – Members Article – Jane Verity (Learn Dr. David Snowdon’s amazing findings including an important link between Alzheimer’s disease, stroke & diet; learn how nutrition can help us live longer, healthier lives without Alzheimer’s; plus discover some critical factors & interesting influences associated with Alzheimer’s.)
  • 3 Powerful Myths about Dementia – Members Article – (Read the full editorial of this précis to discover the one thing people with dementia and children do have in common; learn how we react to a behaviour is how others will interpret that behaviour; plus, how our attitudes and actions can help people with dementia be valued & accepted. We also dispel 2 further powerful myths 1. People with dementia don’t know what they like, need or want. 2. People with dementia can’t learn new things; plus learn the 5 points critical to storing long term memories.)