Risk Factors for Dementia

Written by Wendy Leonard, MPH | Published on July 15, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Kenneth R. Hirsch, MD on July 15, 2014

Risk Factors for Dementia

There are several factors that affect your risk of developing dementia. Some you can change (such as smoking); some you cannot (such as family genetics).

It is important to understand that a risk factor is not a cause. For example, diabetes is a risk factor for both Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and vascular dementia. That does not mean that diabetes causes AD or vascular dementia. Not all people with diabetes develop dementia.

Medical Risk Factors for Dementia

Risk factors associated with dementia include the following:

Atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis is the thickening and hardening of the artery walls due to plaque buildup. Plaque is made of cholesterol, fat, calcium, and other substances in the blood. This buildup can narrow the arteries and interfere with the flow of blood to the brain. This impairs the ability of your brain cells to function properly. It can ultimately lead to the death of those brain cells and their connections to other brain cells.

Cholesterol

A high level of LDL (bad) cholesterol appears to increase your risk of developing vascular dementia. This may be due, in part, to the association between atherosclerosis and high cholesterol.

Homocysteine

Homocysteine is an amino acid that naturally circulates in the blood. It is a building block of protein. Recent studies suggest that a high level of homocysteine is a risk factor for a number of diseases. These include Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, cognitive impairment, and stroke.

Diabetes Mellitus

Studies suggest that diabetes may be associated with an increased risk of developing both AD and vascular dementia. Diabetes is also a risk factor for atherosclerosis and stroke. Both of these conditions can contribute to vascular dementia.

Psychological and Experiential Factors

Research suggests that psychological and experiential factors may be a risk factor for dementia. For example, studies have found that social isolation and not regularly participating in cognitively stimulating activities may be associated with an increased risk of developing AD.

Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)

MCI is a clinical condition in which:

1) A person experiences memory loss greater than expected for his or her age.

2) The memory deficit is enough to be noticed and measured.

3) The deficit is not enough to compromise a person’s independence. For example, they can still take care of themselves and conduct their normal activities.

Up to 50 percent of people with MCI develop Alzheimer’s disease (AD) within three years. This means people with MCI may or may not progress to AD.

Down Syndrome

By middle age, most people with Down syndrome have the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s. Many also develop dementia.

Genetic and Lifestyle Risk Factors for Dementia

Age

Your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, and several other dementias increases with age. In the United States, 40 percent of people 85 years of age and older have dementia. Only five percent of people between the ages of 65 and 74 have dementia.

Genetics

Many forms of dementia seem to have a genetic component. That means it often runs in families. In addition, certain mutations in some specific genes have been identified as increasing risk for developing dementia.

Smoking

Several recent studies have found that smoking may significantly increase the risk of mental decline and dementia. People who smoke have a higher risk of atherosclerosis and other types of vascular disease. These may be the underlying causes for the increased dementia risk.

Alcohol Use

Studies have found that drinking large amounts of alcohol seems to increase your risk of dementia.  Other studies suggest that people who drink moderately have a lower risk of dementia than either those who drink heavily or those who don’t drink at all. 

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