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Will I Inherit Dementia?

“My mother had dementia, so I will too.”

I hear this common misconception all the time, so allow me to clarify a few things.  Dementia is not a disease or trait.  It is not a genetic certainty like eye color or the length of your femur.  Dementia is not “inheritable”.

You may see dementia run in families- but in most cases, it’s one parent and not the other.  Or maybe both parents are affected by dementia, but it’s due to different causes (Parkinson’s, alcoholism, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, depression…).  If you are worried that you will turn out “just like them”, I promise that is NOT a foregone conclusion.

The truth is you can develop dementia for over a hundred reasons. Even if it is the Alzheimer’s type, there is still a very low chance that you have inherited a significant risk of developing it.  Less than 1% of the population develops Alzheimer’s disease because of a rare genetic mutation in their DNA.

You may have inherited your parents’ metabolisms and the way their bodies handle carbohydrates, proteins, fats, calcium, cholesterol… but these inheritable metabolic functions are also easily influenced by the circumstances surrounding them.

What you have inherited from your parents is a lifestyle, a personality, an environment, and a certain way that your genes are influenced by those factors.

You have inherited a culture of food choices, of movement habits, of stress management and roles to play.

You have inherited your parents’ tendency to eat a big starchy meal every night… your dad’s penchant for spending the weekends in the recliner clicking through the sports channels with a bag of chips on his lap… your mother’s habit of putting everyone else’s needs before her own… your father’s distrust of doctors… your mother’s way of rewarding others with sugary treats and bacon fat… your father’s method of “blowing off steam” with excessive alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking… your mother’s dislike of sweaty exercise… your father’s way of “toughing it out” on days he should stay home sick… your mother’s “head in the sand” approach to dealing with conflict or stress…  the obligatory bowl of ice cream every night before bed…the pantry stocked with packaged, sugary foods… plus a litany of traditions and old-wives-tales on best health practices passed down for generations.

Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias are rarely inherited.  The dementia lifestyle is.

 

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2 comments

  1. My father was a “health nut”, so careful to maintain an optimal diet and always exercising. Never drank alcohol or smoked cigarettes. Socially engaged, interests in many things. My great grandmother was in her 60s in a nursing home and died with dementia. Each of her six children died with dementia. My father first asked his doctor to test him for dementia when he was 56, he could feel it coming upon him. He was in a nursing home with advanced dementia from Alzheimer’s at age 70. Three of his cousins of similar age from different family branches are in nursing homes with same diagnosis and the number is rising.

    • Jenny I am so sorry to hear this. There definitely sounds like a genetic link in this case. Has anyone in your family been tested?

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