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Will I inherit mum's Alzheimer's?


Dear Lesley

My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a couple of years ago although it was clear for several years before then that she had dementia. I'm 52 years old and worried I'm going down the same path.

Mum's memory was terrible and so is mine. Sometimes it's big things - I visit somewhere I know I've been to before but it doesn't look familiar, and sometimes small - I can never remember which drawer my socks are in.

I recently read that daughters of women with Alzheimer’s are at higher risk for developing it themselves. I also read that menopause can make your brain foggy and mess with your memory. My sister says I need to stop worrying -- that it's normal to have "menopause moments" and then when you're done with those, "senior moments" will come along.

But how do I know if it's that or the beginning of dementia?

Lesley says:

Dear A

Thank you for your question. You are certainly not alone with this worry. A recent article in The Times (London) noted that the “middle-aged worried well” are swamping clinics set up to diagnose dementia. The article also reported that the UK now fears dementia more than any other illness, including cancer.

I hear this over and over again when talking to clients or running support groups and this worry makes it even harder – in a complicated area - to work out what’s fact and what’s fear.

Can you inherit Alzheimer’s?

Dementia is an umbrella term describing the decline of mental ability. It is caused by a combination of factors that result in the loss of brain cells. Those factors include Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, stroke, the environment and our lifestyles - or just “bad luck”.

Women are a little more susceptible than men. Sadly, “early onset” Alzheimer’s, where someone develops the disease well before the age of 65, can run in families. But this is rare. The latest research suggests that for the most part, Alzheimer’s is not genetic.

The difference between ageing and Alzheimer’s

Some memory loss is a normal part of ageing. But Alzheimer’s isn’t. It’s normal to forget where you left your glasses or your keys. It’s normal to forget names. It’s normal to forget information that’s “on the tip of your tongue”. And it’s normal to go upstairs and then think – “what did I come up here for?”

Your sister is right that menopause can also cause some “brain fog”, making us forgetful and unable to concentrate. Some women also get tearful and anxious. Both ageing and menopause can make it harder to get a good night’s sleep. When we have all this going on and we’re struggling to come to terms with dementia in the family, mid-life angst, and the stress of caring responsibilities it’s easy to imagine the worst.

Like ageing and the menopause, dementia also causes memory loss. But in addition it impairs word and number skills, abstract reasoning, and the ability to plan and organise things. Dementia can also affect personality and mood and change family relationships. Someone with dementia is often trying very hard to figure out how to do something or to remember a piece of information but finds it impossible. By contrast, if your memory lapse is age-related, it may be frustrating but you are able to continue your life pretty much as normal. For example, in your case, I expect you find your socks before long and carry on with your day.

Keeping dementia at bay for longer

Unfortunately as we age, the chances of getting Alzheimer’s do increase – because we are more likely to succumb to the diseases that cause it. And while there is no cure, we have plenty of evidence now that looking after our “brain health” can help to keep dementia at bay for longer. The best ways to do this are:

  • Eating nutritious food and maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding alcohol and smoking
  • Monitoring blood pressure and keeping it at a safe level
  • Getting plenty of exercise
  • Challenging your brain e.g. learning a new language or a how to play a musical instrument
  • Maintaining an active social life

There is also some recent research suggesting that stress can raise the risk of dementia. “Reducing stress” is easier said than done, especially when we have ageing parents. But perhaps you can try to change the most stressful aspects of your life, give yourself a little more time to get your act together each day and laugh it off when you lose or forget something? Yoga and mindfulness are also good ways to reduce stress and increase concentration.

Facing the fear of statistics

Whilst you may not be at risk of “inheriting” Alzheimer’s, the odds of developing dementia can sometimes feel overwhelming. Statistics vary but you may have seen things like this: “up to the age of 65, 1 person in 1000 will develop dementia and over the age of 80 this increases to 1 in 5”.

The best way to handle this is to know that you are doing the best you can to stay mentally and physically healthy whilst trying to look at the statistics from the other side. Even in old age 4 out of 5 of us won’t get dementia – so try to keep positive and make the most of every day as 52 is quite young nowadays!


If you found this article helpful you may like to read more of Lesley’s responses to reader queries in our Ask Lesley column.

You may also find some of our other articles in the healthy mind section of our web site useful:

Dr Lesley Trenner is an Ageing Parent specialist with extensive qualifications and experience in life coaching. Lesley provides one-to-one help for people who are struggling to balance work and care, or cope with mid-life, family and career challenges. Sessions are available face-to-face (London) or on the phone. Email Lesley or call 07919 880 250 for a free introductory chat.

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