Managing these risk factors may lower your risk of dementia

April 21, 2022 in Health Risk Management  •  By Miles Varn, MD

Nearly 6 million adults in the U.S. are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease or a related form of dementia according to data gathered by the CDC. As the number of Americans 65 or older grows, the number of people with these types of dementias is projected to increase to around 14 million over the course of the next 38 years. Not only does dementia affect the health and wellbeing of those who receive the diagnosis, it also has a tremendous effect on the lives of those who are caregivers for people with dementia.

Researchers have found several modifiable risk factors for dementia, which means that there are proactive steps you can take that are associated with a lower risk of developing dementia. In a 2020 study, they identified 12 modifiable risk factors that were associated with 40% of the cases of dementia diagnosed around the world, including:

  • Lower levels of education
  • Hearing loss
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Uncontrolled high blood pressure
  • Excessive consumption of alcohol
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Depression
  • Social isolation
  • Inactivity
  • Diabetes
  • Air pollution

In 2022, researchers looked at these risk factors again. They found that almost half the cases of dementia in the U.S. were related to these previously identified risk factors, with three of the risk factors being larger contributors to risk. Those three factors, all related to cardiovascular health, included high blood pressure, obesity, and physical inactivity, with Black Americans having the highest percentage of cases of dementia related to these risk factors.

How to lower your dementia risk

While there are some risk factors for Alzheimer’s and related dementias that you cannot control, such as age and family history, the good news is that you can make proactive lifestyle changes that can help you manage the modifiable risk factors associated with dementia.

  • Make your cardiovascular health a priority. The three top dementia risk factors—high blood pressure, obesity, and physical inactivity—all have a negative impact on the health of your heart. These risk factors are not only associated with an increased dementia risk, they’re also factors in an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. To lower your risk, get regular blood pressure screenings and, if your doctor prescribes medication to control your blood pressure, make sure to take it as directed. Reach and maintain a healthy weight by making healthy food choices and taking part in regular moderate physical activity most days of the week. It’s also important to get screened for diabetes regularly and manage your blood sugar if you’re diagnosed with the disease.
  • Quit unhealthy habits. If you smoke, quit. Talk with your primary care provider to learn what approaches to smoking cessation make sense for you. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. For men, that means no more than two drinks a day and one drink for women.
  • Take care of your mental health. If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression, like consistent low mood, loss of interest in doing things you enjoy, difficulty concentrating, irritability, sleep problems, consistent tiredness, and thoughts of self-harm, start by talking to your primary care provider. Your provider can do a depression screening and refer you to a mental health provider. Another part of mental wellbeing is building and maintaining social connections. Schedule regular calls and visits with friends and family. Join a hobby or activity group like a walking group or book club. Volunteering is another good way to meet people, help others, and make social connections.
  • Get your hearing checked. If you notice any hearing problems, ask your primary care provider to assess whether you should be seen by an audiologist. Use hearing protection (like ear plugs or muffs) when you’re around loud noises like leaf blowers or power tools. Keep the volume moderate when listening to music, watching T.V. or streaming content, or gaming.
  • Guard against head injury. Always wear a helmet when riding a bike, motorcycle, or scooter. Wear protective headgear when playing contact sports, skiing or snowboarding, horseback riding, or playing baseball or softball. Use your seat belt when in a moving vehicle. And never drive under the influence or ride in a car with an impaired driver.

A health advisor can help you build a plan to make the lifestyle changes that may help you lower your risk of dementia.