Cognitive Science

Let’s Talk About APOE

Have you heard about “the Alzheimer’s gene”? Its name is APOE.

APOE is a unit of your DNA that gives your body instructions for making a protein called apolipoprotein E.

If you look carefully, you can almost see the word “lipid” within the name. This protein combines with your lipids (also called fats) to form lipoprotein. These proteins carry cholesterol and other fats through your blood.

How does this relate to brain health? Healthy cholesterol levels can keep your heart healthy. And what’s good for the heart is good for the brain. Your brain needs healthy blood flow with adequate oxygen to keep cognition sharp.

There are three versions of the APOE gene: ε2, ε3, and ε4. Carrying the ε4 version of APOE increases the risk of developing late-onset Alzheimer’s disease. There is a connection between the ε4 APOE and an increased number of amyloid plaques in the brain.

If you inherit the ε4 gene from one or both of your parents, it doesn’t mean you inherited Alzheimer’s. It simply means you inherited a higher risk for the disease.

It’s possible to reduce your risk for Alzheimer’s even if you carry APOE-ε4.

How do you know if you have the ε4 version of APOE? Your healthcare provider can order a simple blood test. Keep in mind that this test won’t predict with certainty that you’ll have the disease. It can only tell you if you have an increased risk. One study of about 300 people with APOE-ε4 found that 25% developed Alzheimer’s. Some science suggests women’s memories are more impacted by APOE-ε4 than men’s.

While APOE-ε4 increases your risk for Alzheimer’s disease, there’s good news for carriers of the gene. It’s possible to reduce your risk for Alzheimer’s even if you carry APOE-ε4. Studies suggest that building up your cognitive reserve can reduce your risk by about 50%.

How do you build up cognitive reserve? Well, you’re doing it right now. Learning new skills, taking in new information, and improving your vocabulary are all forms of brain training.

In addition, a recent study in the journal Neurology found that there are seven healthy habits that can reduce the odds of developing dementia even in people with the greatest genetic risk. (Interestingly these guidelines, called "Life’s Simple Seven,” were originally created by the American Heart Association, which reinforces the notion that what’s good for the heart is good for the brain.) These habits are:

  • exercising regularly
  • eating healthily
  • not smoking
  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • keeping blood pressure in check
  • having healthy cholesterol levels
  • maintaining healthy blood sugar levels

So, no matter your age or genetic profile, you can focus on these habits to keep your brain healthy and reduce your risk for cognitive decline. Are you working on a new habit right now?


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