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Risk Factors for Dementia

Monday 8 February 2021
Memory loss

Table of Contents


I. Overview of Dementia

II. Dementia and Age

III. Unchangeable Risk Factors

IV. Changeable Risk Factors 


Overview of Dementia 

Most people associate dementia with memory loss. While memory loss is one of the symptoms of this mental condition, dementia also comes with cognitive and psychological changes. People with dementia may have difficulty communicating because they cannot find the words they are looking for. They may experience difficulty reasoning, problem-solving, planning, or handling complex tasks. Personality changes can occur and dementia patients may potentially experience depression, paranoia, or hallucinations. [1]

Doctors conduct neurological exams to evaluate memory, perception, attention, and reflexes. Brain scans may also be used to study patterns of brain activity. There is no cure for dementia, but there are medications like Namenda (memantine) and Aricept (donepezil) that may provide temporary relief of symptoms. Some people are more likely than others to develop dementia. The risk of getting dementia is generally associated with age, although there are other changeable and unchangeable risk factors as well.   

Dementia and Age

Age is the greatest known risk factor of dementia, but dementia is not a normal part of aging. The risk of dementia increases after the age of 65, but dementia can occur in younger people as well. Data shows that dementia incidences in the U.S. double every five years from ages 65 to 90. [2] In an extensive study, researchers found that this rate continues to increase past the age of 90. [2]

a hand putting together a jigsaw puzzle

Dementia is estimated to affect one in 14 people over 65 and one in six people over 80 years of age. [3] These statistics and estimates are changing with improvements in intervention techniques. Recent evidence shows that intervention strategies that build cognitive resilience can help avoid dementia. [4]

Unchangeable Risk Factors

In addition to age, other unchangeable risk factors of dementia include gender, genetics, family history, and Down syndrome. On average, women tend to live longer than men. This could be why women are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease as a form of dementia. It used to be theorized that menopause and the lower estrogen levels that follow it can cause the onset of dementia, but controlled trials where estrogen was boosted did not reduce any risk. [3] Men are more likely to develop vascular dementia (dementia from brain damage) because men are more likely to suffer from stroke and heart disease. [3]

There are more than 20 different genes that affect a person’s risk of developing dementia. Different genes may be responsible for different forms of dementia. An example is the gene apolipoprotein E, which increases a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. There are also certain genes that directly cause dementia. Some affected families show clear patterns of the inheritance of dementia. If a close relative has dementia, you may be more at risk of developing the disease as well, but it does not mean you will be affected. [3]

a man looking for directions

People with Down syndrome tend to develop Alzheimer’s disease by the age of 40. [1] This may be due to a specific gene that produces amyloid precursor protein (APP). This particular protein can bundle together, cause plaques in the brain, and subsequently increase the risk of dementia. [5] 

Changeable Risk Factors       

While you have no control of the risk factors mentioned above, some risk factors you can change include:

Depression: Depression is not a well-understood risk factor of dementia, but it can sometimes be an indication that dementia is developing.

Sleep apnea: Frequent periods of not breathing during sleep deprives the brain of oxygen and can lead to memory loss. 

Nutritional deficiencies: Insufficient levels of folate and vitamins B-6, B-12, and D may increase the risk of dementia. 

Smoking: A smoking habit increases the chance of developing vascular diseases and suffering a stroke. Brain damage from a stroke can cause vascular dementia.

a man smoking a cigarette

Cardiovascular conditions: High blood pressure, high cholesterol, atherosclerosis, and obesity are some of the cardiovascular conditions linked with dementia. 

Alcohol consumption: Heavy alcohol use can lead to dementia. Some say that moderate alcohol can protect you from dementia, but the evidence is inconsistent and not sufficient to encourage a non-drinker to start. [1] 

When it comes to risk factors of dementia, head health and heart health are equally important. Head injury can lead to dementia, so try to take preventive steps like wearing a helmet during sports and buckling your seatbelt. Your brain relies on the heart for nourishment, so taking steps to keep your heart strong is vital. [6] Namenda (memantine) and Aricept (donepezil) are available to treat symptoms of dementia, but a healthy diet combined with a regular aerobic exercise routine can keep both your head and your heart functioning optimally and reduce your risk of developing dementia.

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.