By Neelum T. Aggarwal, MD
The passing of the actor Gene Wilder — remembered by many for his lovable portrayal of Willy Wonka — further reinforced that fact that Alzheimer’s disease does not spare anyone. Many people were no doubt surprised to hear about his diagnosis and that he died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. After all, Gene Wilder was wildly talented, engaged in creative activities all of his life, appeared physically spry and had a wonderful imagination. How could this happen to him?
Indeed, Alzheimer’s disease dementia can happen to anyone, and crosses race/ethnicity and social economic status. More than 5.5 million people in the United States officially have Alzheimer’s disease dementia, which is an underestimation, as many people live with the disease never receive a diagnosis.
Minorities, African-Americans and Latinos are appearing to be hit harder with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. African-Americans are at least 1.5 times more likely to develop the disease, and the data suggests the same for Latinos. Recent data is also confirming that sex and gender differences are present in Alzheimer’s disease — women are developing the disease more than men.
Lifestyle factors that may increase Alzheimer’s risk
Comorbid medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, nutritional deficiencies and depression all can lead to poor cognitive function and can be risk factors of Alzheimer’s disease. People with a history of hypertension also may have a greater risk for Alzheimer’s disease dementia and other dementias. In addition, people who have decreased heart function are two to three times more likely to develop significant memory loss compared to those with better heart function. Lastly, those with multiple cardiovascular risk factors were more likely to have impairment in learning, memory and verbal fluency tests and worsened over time.