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  • Writer's picturePatricia Faust

What Exactly Are Dementia Risk Factors?

Over the past few years I have mentioned a number of chronic diseases that raise your risk of developing dementia. Then I go on to explain how you can lower your risk of dementia. I have taken these explanations for granted. So, I thought I would take a look at the topic of risk factors and try to bring some clarity to the subject.

· Age is the biggest risk for developing dementia. It is a disease of aging. But to be clear – genetics and environment make up one-third of the overall risk of developing dementia.

· Cardiovascular disease has a very strong link to dementia – particularly Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. High blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, diabetes, stroke and heart disease all increase the risk.

· And then there are Lifestyle Choices. Smoking, drinking, inactivity, and limited social and mental stimulation increase the risk of dementia.

Modifiable Risk Factors

Here is the list as it stands right now. I have discussed most of these at one time or another. They all have one thing in common: They destroy cells and cause brain shrinkage. Your brain doesn’t know how old you are. It ages by the way we live our lives. See if any of these risk factors are part of your life:

· Smoking

· Chronic alcohol use

· Lower education level

· Physical inactivity

· Social isolation

· Chronic sleep deprivation

· Poor diet

· Diabetes

· Heart disease

· Hypertension

· High cholesterol

· Head injury

· Hearing loss

· Obesity

· Depression

(Queensland Brain Institute)

Here is an explanation of how we accumulate risk factors as we go through life:

The day we are born:

- We have a clean slate – except if you were born with the ApoE 4 gene.

- Then you have started out with a 7% risk of dementia.

Early Life:

- Throughout your early life you don’t normally pick up any risk factors. If you have less education at this life stage you pick up an 8% risk.


- Midlife is the time that the body starts to pay for the wild and crazy life we might have been living. You increase your risk:

- 9% risk with hearing loss

- 2% risk with hypertension

- 1% risk with obesity

Late Life:

- You pay the piper in late life. You increase your risk with these poor lifestyle choices:

- 5% risk with smoking

- 4% risk with depression

- 3% risk with physical inactivity

- 2% risk with social isolation

- 2% risk with diabetes

All of these risk factors add up to a 35% potentially modifiable risk. These are all lifestyle issues that you can change if you make the choice to change.

The clean start in your life and the gene ApoE 4 make up 65% potentially non-modifiable risk.

(The Lancet) A nonmodifiable risk is one that is beyond your ability to change.

Our Modifiable Risk Factors

Keith Fargo, PhD, director of scientific programs and outreach at the Alzheimer’s Association states “Research from the past two – three years suggests that risk factors need to be focused on in midlife.” Dr. Douglas Scharre, a neurologist, advises that we should be addressing our modifiable risk factors no matter what our age is.

I have written about many of these risk factors over the years. I wanted to relate how they all play a factor in your chances of developing dementia. The individual risk factor doesn’t increase when you have more than one to think about. But the increase in the number of risk factors you have does increase your potential of developing dementia. We have the choice and then the means of changing our life when we address the risk factors that we live with. Experts have focused on three different targets to reduce your risk of dementia: exercise, mental stimulation, and heart health. Get sweaty a few times a week but walking will provide some benefits too. Engage in as many activities that stimulate as many parts of the brain as possible. When you are having a conversation with other people you are stimulating large areas of your brain. Finally, a healthy heart will keep blood flowing to your brain, delivering needed oxygen and nutrients.

We can’t change the genetics we were born with. But we do have the control to change the modifiable risk factors we take on throughout our life. It is estimated that 82 million people worldwide will have dementia by 2030. That is only eleven years away. That puts us in the very high-risk group due to age. It is never too late to change our brains. But we need to start now to ensure that we are not one of those 82 million people.


Queensland Brain Institute. Dementia risk factors. Retrieved March 26, 2019

WebMD. (May 30,2018). Risk factors that put you on the road to dementia. Retrieved March 26, 2019 from

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