Neurology and Neurosurgery

What are risk factors for dementia?

Two senior women playing chess board game at home in the kitchen.


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


By Neurologists from the Nuvance Health Neuroscience Institute


Dementia can be devastating and scary. While it is common and understandable to worry about it as you and your loved ones age, no one can predict the future. We encourage everyone to live in the moment and replace worry with action. Everyone can take steps to lower their risk of developing dementia.


Here is what you need to know about dementia risk factors and if there is anything you can do to lower your risk.


What is dementia?


Dementia happens when changes in the brain cause memory, language and thinking problems. There are different types of dementia or neurodegenerative conditions. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. Dementia occurs when brain cells are damaged, which can happen for different reasons, such as vascular problems or repeated traumatic brain injuries.


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


Who is most at risk 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? Book now with a neurologist.


Can I prevent dementia?


Maintain a healthy lifestyle


Diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, physical activity and smoking fall into the category of “lifestyle issues” that can 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. However, we do know 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.


Avoid excessive alcohol use


Avoiding excessive alcohol consumption may reduce your risk of developing dementia. Alcohol is a toxin to multiple organs, including the brain. Excessive alcohol use includes binge drinking and heavy drinking. Learn more about excessive alcohol consumption from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.



Prevent traumatic brain injuries


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 a single TBI increases dementia risk, and more research is needed to determine the exact link between TBIs and dementia.



Protect your hearing


Researchers have observed a link between hearing loss and dementia but are not sure why yet. What we do know is hearing loss can make it difficult for someone to understand others and lead to confusion, forgetfulness and unresponsiveness, which mirror signs of memory loss.


Hearing loss is considered modifiable because it is often treatable. We recommend people get their hearing checked to rule out any problems before pursuing cognitive testing.



Maintain your mental health and social connections


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. Age-related conditions may prevent us from socializing, such as eye problems that make it difficult to drive 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.


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


We can help you manage all of the above vitally important healthy lifestyle recommendations. Find doctors now.


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.