Scientists don’t yet fully understand what causes Alzheimer's disease in most people. In people with early-onset Alzheimer’s, a genetic mutation is usually the cause. Late-onset Alzheimer’s arises from a complex series of brain changes that occur over decades. The causes probably include some combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. The importance of any one of these factors in increasing or decreasing the risk of developing Alzheimer's may differ from person to person.
Age-related changes in the brain
One of the great mysteries of Alzheimer’s disease is why it largely strikes older adults. Research on normal brain aging is shedding light on this question. For example, scientists are learning how age-related changes in the brain may harm neurons and contribute to Alzheimer’s damage. These age-related changes include atrophy (shrinking) of certain parts of the brain, inflammation, production of unstable molecules called free radicals, and mitochondrial dysfunction (a breakdown of energy production within a cell).
Most people with Alzheimer’s disease have the late-onset form of the disease, in which symptoms become apparent in their mid-60s.The apolipoprotein E (APOE) gene is involved in late-onset Alzheimer’s. This gene has several forms. One of them, APOE ε4, increases a person’s risk of developing the disease and is also associated with an earlier age of disease onset. However, carrying the APOE ε4 form of the gene does not mean that a person will definitely develop Alzheimer’s disease, and people with no APOE ε4 may also develop the disease.
Also, scientists have identified a number of regions of interest in the genome (an organism’s complete set of DNA) that may increase a person’s risk for late-onset Alzheimer’s to varying degrees.
Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease occurs in people age 30 to 60 and represents less than 5 percent of all people with Alzheimer’s. Most cases are caused by an inherited change in one of three genes, resulting in a type known as early-onset familial Alzheimer’s disease, or FAD. For others, the disease appears to develop without any specific, known cause, much as it does for people with late-onset disease.
Health, environmental, and lifestyle factors
Research suggests that a host of factors beyond genetics may play a role in the development and course of Alzheimer’s disease. There is a great deal of interest, for example, in the relationship between cognitive decline and vascular conditions such as heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure, as well as metabolic conditions such as diabetes and obesity. Ongoing research will help us understand whether and how reducing risk factors for these conditions may also reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.