Can You Inherit the Risk of Memory Loss?

As people age, one of their most common fears is losing their memory and experiencing cognitive dysfunction. These fears might be heightened even more if you’ve watched a parent endure the same thing. If your parent appears to have a bad memory—ranging from daily forgetfulness to severe dementia—you might be wondering if their bad memory has been passed down to you.

As it turns out, there are some links between genes and memory loss, but researchers continue to explore the possibilities every day. While some genetic factors may increase your risk for memory troubles, how you treat your body and brain throughout your life may help to combat these inherited risks.

Forgetfulness and genetics

If both you and your parents seem to forget little everyday things or have lapses in short-term memory, you might wonder if the similarity is present on a genetic level. Could your parents’ forgetfulness be passed down to you?

A 2014 study from the University of Bonn suggests that increased forgetfulness may, in fact, be genetic. Researchers tested a group of 500 men and women to determine which of two variants of the dopamine D2 receptor (DRD2) gene they had. This gene is believed to assist with signal transmission in the brain. Then, they had the participants conduct a self-assessment about how often they experience lapses in memory or forgetfulness.

One of two variants of the DRD2 gene was found to be connected to more frequent lapses in short-term memory and heightened forgetfulness. The other variant appears to provide protective factors against forgetfulness and “cognitive failure.” This study suggests that a person’s capacity for forgetfulness may be higher depending on the DRD2 gene variant they inherit from their parents.

Inheritable dementia and Alzheimer’s

Researchers also continue to explore the ways genetics are linked to more serious impairments to memory, like in the case of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. These degenerative diseases impair long-term and short-term memory, communication, attention and other cognitive processes and are particularly common in older adults.

There are multiple forms of Alzheimer’s alone, as well as different types of dementia. These different types of memory loss can be caused by different things, including plaque buildup, damage from strokes and more. Because of the range of potential causes, it’s not easy to say these diseases as a whole are genetic or not. However, experts believe certain types of Alzheimer’s may be genetic.

Early onset dementia or Alzheimer’s may pose a greater risk of being a genetic form of the disease. If a parent develops Alzheimer’s before the age of 60, experts believe the child’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s is increased. However, having hereditary forms of dementia in your family does not necessarily mean you will develop dementia.

Research is ongoing concerning the specific genes that might be tied to rapid brain deterioration and plaque buildup that could lead to dementia.

Working against genetic risk factors

Although there appear to be links between inheritable genes and memory loss, both in the short term and the long term, your genetic makeup won’t necessarily determine the state of your cognition as you age. Genetic factors are more likely to increase your risk for memory loss—not cause it.

Thus, it’s very important for you to take good care of your brain and cognitive health throughout your entire life in order to combat those risks as much as possible. Here are a few tips to keep in mind.

  • Eat well: Did you know that food can contribute greatly to the health of your brain, as well as your body? Many nutrients are used by the brain to build or strengthen neural pathways and prevent deterioration. Add more fatty fish, antioxidant-rich berries, nuts and seeds and leafy greens to your diet to ensure your brain gets all the building blocks it needs!
  • Exercise often: Exercise, too, is just as good for your brain as it is for your body. Research suggests routine exercise can reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s, as well as slow cognitive decline that’s already occurring by stimulating the brain and keeping your body healthy. Aim to do both cardio and strength training for the best results.
  • Keep your mind sharp: Physical exercise is not the only way to stay healthy—mental exercise is also crucial. Help keep your mind sharp by challenging your brain with things like puzzles, reading, new skills, languages and more. Aim to constantly engage your mind with new things and work to build new connections in the brain well into your senior years.
  • Practice good sleep hygiene: Experts have made numerous connections between sleep disruption and memory loss. Failing to get enough quality sleep can prevent the brain from clearing out toxins and plaque, forming new neural pathways and even storing long-term memories. Good sleep hygiene ensures your brain can regenerate and recharge overnight and keep your mind healthy and strong over time.

Thinking about genetic determinants of cognitive health can be scary, but it’s important to remember that many risks are exacerbated by lifestyle factors. By taking control of your brain health throughout your adult life, you can help stave off the effects of memory loss.

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