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Lifetime Risk Factors That Lead to Dementia

Written by: Patricia Faust, MGS, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


Over the past fifteen years, I have been researching and learning about brain aging and brain health. One of the terms that is thrown around consistently is ‘risk factor’. It has been a go-to term in my blogs and speaking engagements when I am talking about dementia. In writing about chronic disease’s impact on the brain, I finally learned what risk factors actually mean.

unhappy senior woman looking out of window alone at home

Risk Factors are aspects of your lifestyle, environment, and genetic background that increase a person’s chances of developing a condition. There are some risk factors that cannot be avoided:

Non-modifiable Risk Factors

  • Age – Dementia is not a normal part of aging, but age is the strongest known risk factor of developing dementia. This means that a person who is aged over 75 is more likely to develop dementia than someone under 75.

  • Sex – Women are at a higher risk of developing dementia Alzheimer’s disease than men. Potential contributors to this include:

    • Women live longer (on average) than men

    • Changes in estrogen levels over a woman’s lifetime

    • Presence of frailty and other health conditions

  • Genetics – Although the role of genetics in the development of dementia is not fully understood, scientists have found over 20 genes that may increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease

Modifiable Risk Factors

These are the risk factors we have control over and can change. Cardiovascular disease has a very strong link to dementia. High blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, diabetes, stroke, and heart disease can all increase your risk.

Your lifestyle determines how fast your brain ages. Poor lifestyle choices can accelerate brain aging, meaning that you will lose cell volume faster. This is the current list of modifiable risk factors. I will review the effect of each of these lifestyle choices so that you can see how they damage your brain and increase your risk for dementia.

  • Smoking: The evidence is strong and consistent that smokers are at a higher risk of developing dementia vs non-smokers or ex-smokers.

  • Chronic Alcohol Use: Drinking excessively (more than 14 drinks per week for women and more than 21 drinks for men) can increase your risk of developing dementia

  • Low Levels of Cognitive Engagement: Cognitive engagement is thought to support the development of ‘cognitive reserve’. This is the idea that people who actively use their brains throughout their lives may be more protected against brain cell damage caused by dementia.

  • Obesity and Lack of Physical Exercise: Obesity in midlife (ages 45-65) increases your risk of developing dementia. Obesity and lack of physical exercise can also increase the risk of developing risk factors such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

  • Social Isolation: Social isolation can increase the risk of hypertension, coronary artery disease, depression, and dementia. Staying socially active may also help slow down the progression of the disease.

  • Poor Diet: An unhealthy diet, high in saturated fat, sugar, and salt, can increase the risk of developing many illnesses, including dementia and cardiovascular disease.

  • Diabetes: People with Type 2 diabetes in midlife (45-65) are at an increased risk of developing dementia, particularly Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia.

  • Hypertension: People who have consistent high blood pressure in midlife (45-65) are more likely to develop dementia.

  • Traumatic Brain Injury: People who experience severe or repeated head injuries are at increased risk of developing dementia. Brain injuries can trigger a process that might eventually lead to dementia. This particularly affects athletes in boxing, soccer, hockey, and football, where players often have repeated head injuries.

  • Hearing Loss: Mid-levels of hearing loss increase the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Though it is still unclear how exactly it affects cognitive decline, hearing loss can lead to social isolation, loss of independence, and problems with everyday activities.

  • Depression: People who experience depression in mid or later life have a higher risk of developing dementia. However, the relationship between depression and dementia is still unclear. Many researchers believe that depression is a risk factor for dementia, whereas others believe it may be an early symptom of the disease or both.

  • Air Pollution: The relationship between air pollution and dementia is still unclear. However, it is estimated that those living close to busy roads have a higher risk of dementia because they can be exposed to higher levels of air pollution from vehicle emissions.

  • Cardiovascular Factors: A cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a disease that damages the heart and makes to harder for blood to circulate around the body. The main CVD risk factors that are known to increase a person’s risk of getting dementia are:

    • High blood pressure

    • Increasingly stiff and blocked arteries (known as atherosclerosis)

    • High blood cholesterol levels

    • Being overweight and physically unfit

    • Type 2 diabetes

Now before you breathe a sigh of relief and believe this article was written for your parents or grandparents, or anyone older than you, let’s look at how you accumulate risk factors throughout your life.

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 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.

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. It is never too early or too late to change our brains. But we need to start now to ensure that we are not one of those 82 million people.

For more info, follow me on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and visit my website!


Patricia Faust, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Patricia Faust is a gerontologist specializing in the issues of brain aging, brain health, brain function, and dementia. She has a Master in Gerontological Studies degree from Miami University in Oxford Ohio. Patricia is certified as a brain health coach and received a certification in Neuroscience and Wellness through Dr. Sarah McKay and the Neuroscience Academy.

My Boomer Brain, founded in 2015, is the vehicle that Patricia utilizes to teach, coach, and consult about brain aging, brain health, and brain function. Her newsletter, My Boomer Brain, has international readers from South Africa, Australia, throughout Europe, and Canada.

Patricia’s speaking experience spans the spectrum of audiences as she addresses corporate executives on brain function, regional financial professionals on client diminished capacity, and various senior venues concerning issues around brain aging and brain health.



Queensland Brain Institute. Dementia risk factors. Retrieved from

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



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