Chances are you know someone whose life has been changed because of Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.

About 5.8 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia. Unless we discover ways to prevent, slow, or cure Alzheimer’s, by 2050 that number is expected to increase to nearly 14 million.

That’s why June has been designated Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month—and why Clinical Research Pathways joins others nationwide in calling attention to this memory-robbing condition.

Who is at risk?

The most significant risk factor for Alzheimer’s is age. More than 95% of those with Alzheimer’s are 65 or older. Yet some older individuals are at greater risk than others.

  • Women: Almost two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s are women.
  • People of color: African Americans are nearly twice as likely to have Alzheimer’s or other dementias as whites. Hispanic Americans are about 1½ times as likely.

Scientists continue to study both the causes of Alzheimer’s and the reasons for related health disparities. One study found that women with a form of the gene ApoE4, which increases the risk of Alzheimer’s, were twice as likely to develop the disease as women without the gene. The findings differed for men. Those with the gene faced only a slightly higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

Another study found biological differences among African Americans and whites who have Alzheimer’s. For example, African Americans with a family history of dementia had a smaller hippocampus—the region of the brain associated with memory—than whites with a similar family history.

The same study compared tau levels in cerebral spinal fluid in African Americans and whites who have the ApoE4 gene form. “Tau tangles,” which prevent nutrients from being transported within nerve cells, are considered markers for Alzheimer’s. In general, Alzheimer’s patients with lower tau levels tend to have less cognitive damage. However, African Americans in the study had significantly lower tau levels but were just as impaired as whites with higher tau levels.

All of these findings underscore the need for additional studies that include men and women from all population groups.

What can you do?

Currently there is no effective medical treatment for Alzheimer’s. However, experts recommend some actions that could help reduce your risk of developing the disease.

  • Be heart-smart. Some factors that increase the risk of cardiovascular disease are believed to also increase the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s. Therefore, many experts recommend a heart-healthy diet that’s low in sugar and saturated fat and includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Evidence has shown that physical exercise can help prevent the development of Alzheimer’s or slow its progress. Physicians recommend 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least three times a week.
  • Stay connected. Some studies show that having strong social relationships and keeping mentally active might reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.
  • Protect your head. Research has linked traumatic brain injury to the protein abnormalities found in Alzheimer’s patients. To reduce the likelihood of injury, wear a seatbelt; use a helmet when riding a bicycle, skiing, or engaging in other sports; and “fall-proof” your home.
  • Consider participating in a clinical trial. The National Institute on Aging reports that at least 270,000 volunteers are needed to participate in about 200 studies that are testing ways to understand, diagnose, treat, and prevent Alzheimer’s. These studies need volunteers of different ages, sexes, races, and ethnicities to ensure that results apply to as many people as possible. If you’re interested in clinical trials related to Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias, talk to your doctor about local studies or search online.