Epigenetics and Alzheimer's Disease

by Amylee Amos MS, RDN

There is such fear associated with Alzheimer’s disease. I see that fear in my office everyday. Its power transcends generations. In fact, for those who have watched a parent suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, the fear can last decades and is exacerbated by the concept of genetics. Alzheimer’s is a devastating disease, so the fear of developing its symptoms is justified, but understanding the role that genetics plays is essential. For so long, the scientific community believed that Alzheimer’s disease was the result of genetic determinism, meaning that carrying certain genes meant that carrier was destined to develop Alzheimer’s. However, for the vast majority of people at genetic risk for Alzheimer’s, including those who carry ApoE4, this is not the case.

Our genes do not hardwire us for chronic disease. Rather, they influence about 25% of our total health. Our lifestyle choices such as nutrition, exercise, sleep, stress, and toxic exposure determines the other 75%. Think about that for a moment. Genetics is just one quarter of your dollar. We call this epigenetics. Epigenetics refers to changes caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself. Epigenetic modifications occur in response to several factors, including aging, stress, lifestyle, environment, nutrition, and overall health status.

Your actual genes are like the blueprint of a house. A blueprint gives you an idea of what the building may look like, how it will be built. But in reality, the blueprint means nothing. But genomics, or the epigenetic impact, the actual expression of those genes is the actual brick and mortar. The genetic expression shows you what materials were used. Following the exact same blueprint, your building could be built of cardboard held together by duct tape. Or also following the same blueprint it could be made of the best materials, titanium beams, earthquake retrofitted. Same blueprint, very different building. You choose how to use the blueprint, how to build the building, with lifestyle choices.

In this video clip, Dr. Dale Bredesen talks about Alzheimer’s disease and epigenetics. He highlights the fact that genetics are rarely our destiny and that we have the power over our health. What epigenetics means that we are in control of our own destiny. It doesn’t matter what your genetic tests said. It doesn’t matter what your ApoE variants are. We need to know them because we use that information to create a personalized treatment plan. But risk is not diagnostic. Your risk doesn’t mean you will get a disease. Rather than dwelling on your genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s, focus on the 75% of the picture that you determine. You have the ability to balance the odds in your favor. Dr. Bredesen explains that because we have the power over our genetic expression, Alzheimer’s should become a rare disease. He points out that one day Alzheimer’s disease will go the same route as diseases like Polio and Leprosy. Diseases that were once terrifying epidemics are now not feared in the slightest. We have the power to make Alzheimer’s a disease of the past, and to once and for all ease the fear associated with it.

References:

  • Bland, J. The Disease Delusion. New York, NY. Harper-Collins, 2014.
  • Bredesen, D.E. _The End of Alzheimer’s: The First Program to Prevent and Reverse Cognitive Decline._New York: Avery, 2017.