By Mandy Oaklander
September 17, 2014
TIME Health
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The risk factors for the neurodegenerative disease affecting more than 5 million Americans aren’t all in the brain. And a new report from Alzheimer’s Disease International highlights the connection between the disease of the brain and heart disease, says Heather Snyder, PhD, director of medical and scientific operations for the Alzheimer’s Association. In the report, blood pressure, diabetes, and smoking are highlighted as risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, which strike women far more than men. There’s other evidence that obesity and sedentary behavior might play a part.

Many people view Alzheimer’s as a disease over which they have no control. But while factors like age and genetics do contribute to its development, the latest data indicate that other factors, which can be modified, may also be important. For example, hypertension in middle age may increase dementia risk, and mid-to-late-life diabetes is also associated with increased risk for all kinds of dementia. Both can be avoided with changes in lifestyle and, if needed, medications.

“The best evidence right now for lifestyle factors that may reduce risk of Alzheimer’s and other dementias is for regular physical activity in combination with social and mental stimulation, and quitting smoking,” said Maria Carrillo, Alzheimer’s Association vice president of medical and scientific relations, in a statement. “Other lifestyle aspects that may contribute to healthy-brain aging are eating a brain-healthy diet, being mentally active, and being socially engaged.”

And more research may likely identify other risk factors as well. “It’s a complex disease,” Snyder says. “It’s the sixth leading cause of death–and the only cause of death [for which] we currently don’t have a way to stop or slow its progression.” Understanding Alzheimer’s connections to conditions like heart disease could be a first step in addressing that gap.

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