Top 3 Modifiable Risk Factors for Dementia, According to Recent Study

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Jun 17, 2024

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You’ll find a long list of dementia risk factors but not all of them are within your control. You can’t change your age or genetics. However, many risk factors for dementia are modifiable, making it possible to take steps toward minimizing your risk and protect your brain.

The journal, Nature Communications, published research in March of 2024 that revealed the top three out of 15 most harmful but modifiable risk factors for dementia. This information helps you place your focus on lifestyle changes that will most impact your brain health. The three most harmful risk factors are diabetes, traffic-related air pollution, and alcohol, and here is how to minimize associated risks.

15 Modifiable Risk Factors for Dementia

Research has already revealed that our brains have a “weak spot” that develops in later adolescence but also susceptible to earlier degeneration. It’s most vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease.

The question became, how do we prevent this degeneration, this slide into dementia? In the new study, researchers evaluated the brain scans of 40,000 adults in the UK. These participants were ages 44-82. The study hoped to clarify how modifiable risk factors impacted this weaker area of the brain.

For research purposes, they divided the modifiable risk factors into 15 categories:

Cholesterol

  • Blood pressure
  • Smoking
  • Weight
  • Inflammation
  • Depression
  • Hearing Socialization
  • Sleep
  • Physical activity
  • Diet
  • Education
  • Pollution
  • Diabetes
  • Alcohol consumption

The last three on the list, alcohol, diabetes, and pollution proved to have the most devastating influence on cognitive decline.

Managing the Top 3 Risk Factors for Cognitive Decline

Dementia involves a loss of thinking abilities, including language, memory, and problem-solving. According to the National Institute on Aging, about one-third of people aged 85 and older may have a form of dementia. But the prevalence of the disease doesn’t mean it’s inevitable, especially when you take proactive steps to address these modifiable risk factors. Up to 40 percent of dementia cases could be prevented or delayed, which is why lifestyle adjustments are so crucial.

Traffic-Related Air Pollution

The burning of gasoline or diesel (fossil fuels) releases nitrogen dioxide into the air, which is a major hazard for your brain. The pollutant indirectly harms your brain, making you more likely to develop cardiovascular disease, a known risk factor for dementia. It can also cause inflammation as it directly enters your brain.

Of course, you can’t completely avoid traffic-related air pollution, but you can reduce your exposure and minimize the risk. When possible, you can stay indoors on high pollution days. Weather apps often provide an air quality index to keep you informed. Additionally, when driving, you can close windows and air vents to keep outdoor air from entering your vehicle. This can lower your exposure to air pollution.

Alcohol Consumption

Alcohol is another major dementia risk factor, specifically if you drink more than 14 servings of alcohol per week. While that might sound like a lot, it is the equivalent of two drinks per day. This level of consumption can cause a notably greater loss of brain mass compared to those who drink fewer than seven servings per week or less than a drink per day. In this case, you can drastically reduce or eliminate your alcohol intake to positively impact your brain health.

Diabetes

If you want to drop your risk for developing dementia, it’s important to address diabetes, either through prevention or reversal. Stick to a healthy eating plan and get regular exercise to push back against diabetes. Doing so can greatly reduce your risk of dementia. Diabetes increases your dementia risk by 73%.

Other Dementia Risk Factors to Manage

Correcting hearing loss with a hearing aid and audiologist can reduce your risk of dementia. Hearing loss has a negative impact on brain function, but correcting hearing loss restores brain health and prevents further decline. Hearing loss also causes social isolation and depression, both of which are dementia risk factors themselves. Addressing hearing loss can boost brain function in several ways.

You can further reduce your dementia risk through lifelong learning. Your brain likes a challenge, and when you engage in learning new information or skills, it stimulates growth and brain health. It increases cognitive activity and prevents decline through lack of use. This is modifiable, because education for brain health doesn’t have to be formal or expensive. You can engage in self-studies, reading that stretches your thinking, or learning a new skill through informal classes. It doesn’t mean you have to go back to school or gain a degree.

Preventing Dementia By Reducing Risk Factors

Whether you are at risk for dementia through genetics or not, it’s possible to address lifestyle factors that increase your risk further. The top three modifiable risk factors that you can address are diabetes, air pollution, and alcohol use. You can be proactive by avoiding outdoor air on high-pollution days, limiting alcohol consumption, and preventing or reversing diabetes through diet and exercise. Additionally, correcting hearing loss and continuing to learn as you age can further reduce your dementia risk.

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