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Unique study of triplets points to non-genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s Disease

Jordyn Sims Pierce, MS, CCC-SLP, ATP | Dementia, Alzheimer's

More and more people around the world are being impacted by Alzheimer’s Disease, a type of progressive dementia impacting memory, thought, and language. With so many people affected (the Centers for Disease Control predicts that the number of people with Alzheimer’s will nearly triple from 5 million today to 14 million by 2060), scientists are hard at work to figure out the causes of Alzheimer’s and what we can do both to treat it and to prevent it. 

Read on to learn more about Alzheimer’s, including what we know today, a summary of a recent scientific study showing just how complex this disease is, and what actions you can take today.

What causes Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common type of dementia, yet we really don’t know what causes it. Age plays a role, and family history and genetics have also been shown to impact Alzheimer’s. With Alzheimer’s as the 5th leading cause of death among adults 65 years or older (CDC), scientific researchers are constantly looking to better understand the disease in hopes of finding a cure.

Recently, a group of world-class scientists from China, Canada, and New York worked together to complete a very unique study.  Zhang and colleagues conducted an investigation of a set of identical triplets, two of whom developed Alzheimer’s disease, while the third did not.  

Half of early-onset Alzheimer’s cases are genetically unexplained

There is also a huge variety in terms of when Alzheimer’s shows up, which suggests that there are either genetic or environmental factors going on that we just don’t fully understand yet. This study demonstrates that even when you have three people who have identical genetics, the outcome is not certain. However, genetics definitely do play a role – the scientists also collected data from the triplets’ children. Of that next generation, one person did have early-onset Alzheimer’s, and his parent was one of the triplets that also had Alzheimer’s.  

The scientists in this study looked for potential genetic mutations and found some alleles (alternative forms of genes caused by mutations) that might be contributing causes to Alzheimer’s. However, the scientists were careful to note that while this family is very unique, they are just one family, and therefore conclusions about genome-wide data cannot be made.  The authors of the study noted that future studies are required, and we’re excited to see what comes next from the world of Alzheimer’s research.

What can aging adults do in the meantime to reduce their risk factors for Alzheimer’s?

Going back to the CDC article I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, “there is growing evidence that physical, mental, and social activities may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease”.  

So what does that mean practically?  Get out for a walk! Go join a group exercise class at your local YMCA.  Keep up your crossword puzzles and check out the library for a new book. Make sure you’re staying in touch with family and friends, whether that means chatting on the phone or by FaceTime or maybe grabbing coffee.  And if you have concerns about your own or a loved one’s cognitive or language skills, check out Constant Therapy’s library of tasks.  There’s a great variety of activities and difficulty levels, so go take a look and see if there are any that might help you or your loved one stay sharp! 

Want to read the article we referenced in full? Check it out below

  • Ming Zhang, Allison A Dilliott, Roaa Khallaf, John F Robinson, Robert A Hegele, Michael Comishen, Christine Sato, Giuseppe Tosto, Christiane Reitz, Richard Mayeux, Peter St George-Hyslop, Morris Freedman, Ekaterina Rogaeva, Genetic and epigenetic study of an Alzheimer’s disease family with monozygotic triplets, Brain, Volume 142, Issue 11, November 2019, Pages 3375–3381,
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