By Dr. Samuel Markind, Neurologist
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there are 73 million baby boomers in the nation. As the baby boomer population — defined as adults born from 1946 to 1964 — continues to age, experts predict that there may be a nationwide increase in dementia cases.
As a result, many older adults and their loved ones may wonder whether they are at risk for dementia, and if there’s anything they can do to prevent it. Here’s what you need to know about dementia risk factors, and how you may be able to lower the chances that you will develop the condition.
Dementia risk factors: What are they and what do they mean?
There has been increasing research on how lifestyle issues affect dementia risk, and organizations such as the Alzheimer’s Association, the American College of Neurology, and the World Health Organization (WHO) have issued guidelines on how to reduce your chances of developing the condition. Most recently, The Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention published a new report that identifies 12 risk factors — an increase from nine risk factors included in the Commission’s 2017 report — that have been linked to approximately 40 percent of dementia cases worldwide.
Several of these risk factors are modifiable, meaning that individuals may be able to decrease their level of risk if they avoid or change certain behaviors. According to The Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention, the modifiable dementia risk factors include:
- Excessive alcohol consumption in midlife
- High blood pressure in midlife
- Midlife hearing loss
- Midlife obesity
- Traumatic brain injury (TBI) in midlife
- Depression later in life
- Diabetes later in life
- Physical inactivity later in life
- Smoking later in life
- Social isolation later in life
Reducing your risk of dementia
Diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, physical activity, and smoking fall into the category of “lifestyle issues,” but they also relate to an individual’s level of vascular health. Researchers aren’t entirely sure why vascular health is linked to dementia risk; but keeping your body’s blood vessels functioning well promotes blood flow to the brain, which could affect the mental processes involved in learning, problem solving, remembering, and thinking.
Avoiding excessive alcohol consumption may reduce your risk of developing dementia. Alcohol is a toxin to multiple organs, including the brain. Excessive alcohol use is defined as consuming eight drinks or more per week for women and 15 drinks or more per week for men.
Avoiding TBIs, such as concussions, can prevent brain damage that could eventually contribute to the onset of dementia. Studies over the last 30 years have shown individuals who experience moderate, severe, or repeated mild TBIs may have an increased risk of developing dementia years after the original head injury occurred. It’s important to know that there’s no evidence that a single TBI increases dementia risk, and more research is needed to determine the exact link between TBIs and dementia.
Even hearing loss — which might not seem like it’s a modifiable risk because it may be related to aging or other factors beyond your control — is considered modifiable because it’s often treatable. Confusion, forgetfulness, and unresponsiveness that may appear to be related to memory loss could actually be caused by hearing loss that prevents an individual from understanding others. We recommend our patients consider getting their hearing checked to rule out any problems before pursuing cognitive testing.
Similar to hearing loss, depression and social isolation may cause dementia-like symptoms, which is why they’re modifiable risk factors. Social isolation can occur as we age and experience the loss of family and friends, or conditions that may prevent us from socializing — such as eye problems and having trouble driving to events. Evidence links loneliness and social isolation with depression. Depression and dementia share similar symptoms such as memory problems and trouble concentrating. Depression can often be treated with medication or talk therapy, and steps can usually be taken to increase the amount of social contact you have with others.
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Researchers are looking for new ways to prevent and treat dementia especially because the number of dementia cases is expected to increase due to the aging baby boomer population. U.S. POINTER is a clinical trial studying lifestyle interventions that can effectively target dementia risk factors and protect memory in older adults. U.S. POINTER is unique because researchers are studying causation, or “cause and effect,” which will help them learn whether interventions to address modifiable risk factors make a difference, and what specific effect the interventions have on clinical trial participants.
Although there’s still much to learn about dementia, preventive medical care and lifestyle choices as you age may help reduce your dementia risks.To summarize things you can do to potentially reduce your risk of dementia:
- Get regular exercise and eat a healthy diet to prevent diabetes and obesity
- Quit smoking
- Control blood pressure to ensure that it remains within a healthy range
- Prevent head injuries
- Limit alcohol consumption
- Get your hearing checked and use hearing aids, if necessary
- Seek help from a medical professional if you experience symptoms of depression
- Stay socially active and connected to others, especially later in life
The bottom line: Research shows that managing specific health and lifestyle behaviors may decrease your risk of developing dementia. Understanding your dementia risk factors and taking steps to change your lifestyle may preserve your memory and cognitive abilities as you age.
Dr. Samuel Markind is a neurologist who specializes in dementia. He is board-certified in neurology and clinical neurophysiology, and he is a Fellow of the American Academy of Neurology.