Neurology and Neurosurgery

Dementia risk factors: What you need to know

Dementia risk factors: What you need to know


Research shows modifying risk factors for dementia may reduce the chances of developing age-related memory and thinking problems


By Dr. Samuel Markind, Neurology, Nuvance Health


The U.S. Census Bureau estimates there are 73 million baby boomers in the nation — adults born between 1946 to 1964. As the baby boomer population ages, experts predict there may be a nationwide increase in dementia cases.

As a result, if you are like most people, you may wonder whether you or your loved ones are at increased risk for dementia, and if there is anything you can do about it.


Here is what you need to know about dementia risk factors, and how to lower risk for developing the condition. 


What are risk factors for dementia?

There has been increasing research on how lifestyle affects dementia risk. 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.


The Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention identified 12 risk factors that have been linked to about 40% of dementia cases worldwide. These risk factors include:

  • Air pollution
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Head injury
  • Hearing impairment
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Less education
  • Obesity
  • Physical inactivity
  • Smoking
  • Social isolation


Several of these risk factors are modifiable, meaning you may be able to decrease dementia risk by addressing or changing certain behaviors, lifestyle choices and medical conditions.


Are you concerned about your brain health? Is a loved one showing signs of dementia? Learn more about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia care at Nuvance Health and find a neurologist here.


Can I reduce my risk for dementia?

Diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, physical activity and smoking fall into the category of “lifestyle issues” that may be changed to reduce dementia risk. They also relate to vascular health. Researchers are not 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 traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), such as concussions, can prevent brain damage that may 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 is important to know there is no evidence that a single TBI increases dementia risk, and more research is needed to determine the exact link between TBIs and dementia.


Hearing loss is considered modifiable because it is often treatable. Hearing loss may make it difficult for someone to understand others and lead to confusion, forgetfulness and unresponsiveness — which mirror signs of memory loss. We recommend people get 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 are 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.


Related article — Brain health supplements: What you need to know


What is being done to prevent and treat dementia?

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.


The Alzheimer’s Association U.S. Study to Protect Brain Health Through Lifestyle Intervention to Reduce Risk (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 is still much to learn about dementia, preventive medical care and lifestyle choices as you age may help reduce your dementia risks, including:

  • 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 conditions 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.


Memory problems can occur for many reasons, including medication side effects and vascular diseases that limit blood flow to the brain. Early detection is key to starting treatment or quality of life interventions as soon as possible. Nuvance Health provides memory disorder care you can trust, including a family-centered approach to Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Find a neurologist today.