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12 Modifiable Risk Factors for Dementia that Could Prevent or Delay 40% of Cases

brain health dementia prevention memory coaching Oct 25, 2022
Modifiable Risk Factors for Dementia

One of the biggest misconceptions about memory loss and our risk for dementia is that it’s completely out of our hands.

We’ve been led to believe that our family history and our age determines our fate. And given that we’ve never been properly taught how to care for our memory, it makes sense that up until now, we may have believed that it was beyond our control.

The truth is, though, that our lifestyle is our best defense against memory loss and cognitive decline as we age. If you want a vibrant memory, you need to know all your potential risk factors that can destroy it so you can address and mitigate each one.

The Root Cause of Memory Loss

Memory loss is a symptom of a bigger problem. It can manifest from temporary issues like poor sleep or stress, and it can cause serious concern. Prolonged conditions that impact your health can also create long term memory problems or accelerate your risk of dementia. For this reason, it's important to know and to address all of your potential risk factors.

Certain common health conditions increase risk across the board. Let's dive into what they are and what we can do about it.

By the end of this article, you will know:

  • The 12 modifiable risk factors for dementia 
  • What stage of life each risk factor for dementia can impact you the most
  • Lifestyle changes that can mitigate or ameliorate your risks
  • What to do next if you are experiencing memory loss or you're concerned about your risk of dementia

If you've ever worried about your risk of dementia due to family history, or fear from subtle signs of memory loss or cognitive change, keep reading!

Click here to download your FREE Get Your Memory Back Starter Guide

The 12 Modifiable Risk Factors for Dementia

In 2020, the Lancet Commission generated the most comprehensive report of dementia risk to date. This collaborative report from dementia experts highlights the 12 modifiable risk factors for dementia across a person’s life.

Why This is Important

Currently, there is no treatment to slow or stop dementia.

According to the World Health Organization, global dementia rates are expected to nearly triple by the year 2050. Which means unless we can do something about it, this will be the world’s next health crisis

So, in 2020 the Lancet Commission developed the Dementia Prevention, Intervention and Care Report. This was a global effort to develop a comprehensive list of prevention measures to mitigate the dementia health crisis. This group of dementia experts shared the most lifestyle factors that impact your risk, many of which are within our control and could collectively prevent or delay up to 40% of dementia cases.

That is huge! In the report, experts also state, “It is never too early and never too late in the life course for dementia prevention.”

So, even if you've had no idea of any of this information up until this point, you could intervene now and still greatly reduce your risk of dementia, regardless of your family history. This becomes especially important if you're already beginning to experience memory changes with age or if you've been diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). 

Taking action at the earliest signs of change can lead to meaningful and effective changes to your lifestyle that could reverse, slow, or stop the progression of memory loss or disease. 

The 12 Modifiable Risk Factors for Dementia

While some of these are more difficult to control than others, mitigating these factors could have a huge impact on your current and future health. The report states that even those who currently have dementia can still benefit from addressing these factors.

The 12 modifiable risk factors for dementia, according to life-stage, are:

  • Early life:
    • Less education (higher education levels are associated with increased cognitive reserve)
  • Mid-life:
    • Hearing loss
    • Hypertension
    • Obesity
    • Excessive alcohol intake
    • Head injury
  • Later life (65+):
    • Smoking
    • Depression
    • Social isolation
    • Physical inactivity
    • Diabetes
    • Air pollution

Let's break down the 12 modifiable risk factors for dementia a bit further.

Collectively, the Lancet Commission reports that the combined effect of addressing these risk factors could prevent or delay up to 40% of dementia cases worldwide. Let's dive into each one and gain an understanding of why each of these risk factors could impact your memory and risk of neurodegenerative disease.

1. Less Education

Higher levels of education are associated with increased brain volume and connectivity. Your brain physically grows and changes as you learn and develop new skills. Therefore, a highly educated brain will have more resilience than a less educated brain. To be clear, this does not only include formal education but rather one's continued learning and growth in knowledge and skills.

Here is an example of how this works that I use often when I'm explaining cognitive reserve:

Picture a rope tied to a boat on the water out in the sun. The more fibers the rope has and the healthier each of those fibers are, the stronger and more robust that rope will be.

As the rope ages, those fibers being strong and healthy are essential to its resilience against deterioration. New learning is like building and strengthening new fibers to combat age related changes in the brain. The more connections you have, the more resilient your mind is against age related changes.

Now picture the same rope that continues to sit in the sun without restrengthening or developing new fibers. This rope is likely thinner and more prone to break down, wither and deteriorate more quickly.

New learning can make or break your rope.

There is no age limit on continued learning. It is never too early or too late to make changes to your brain and your habits to reduce your risk of dementia.

2. Hearing Loss

Untreated hearing loss increases your risk for dementia. It's important to address hearing loss and avoid excessive noise exposure.

According to the Lancet Commission, hearing loss accounts for up to 8% of dementia cases worldwide. Adults with hearing loss have a faster rate of cognitive decline than adults with normal hearing. Hearing loss requires extra cognitive resources which limits the cognitive reserves available for memory and thinking. This can lead to physical changes in brain volume and function that can accelerate dementia. If you're experiencing hearing loss, schedule an appointment with an audiologist who can assess function and discuss treatment options.

3. Hypertension 

Your cognitive health rests upon your physical health.

High blood pressure has been linked to an increased risk of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease and dementia. For this reason, it is critical to know your numbers and aim to optimize them. Working with your doctor and other professionals to manage your diet, stress and overall health can put you back in control of your blood pressure, lowering your risk of dementia.

The Lancet Commission report states, "aim to maintain systolic BP of 130 mm Hg or less in midlife from around age 40 years."

4. Obesity

It's no secret that being overweight can wreak havoc on your health. This applies to brain health just as much as it does heart health. Incorporating more physical activity can combat obesity and reduce stress, both of which can reduce your risk of dementia.

5. Excessive alcohol intake

According to the report, you should limit alcohol use, as drinking more than 21 units weekly increase the risk of dementia.

But what about red wine? Doesn't the resveratrol combat dementia? Unfortunately, no. Research suggests that red wine does not provide neuroprotective benefits like previously thought. Resveratrol is more protective when it comes from non-alcoholic sources such as red grapes.

6. Head Injury

While mitigating head injuries can be a little more challenging to control, it's important to understand the connection between head trauma, concussions, traumatic brain injury (TBI) and subsequent dementia. 

Dr. Amen explains this in his book Memory Rescue, stating, "Your very soft brain is housed in a really hard skull that has multiple sharp, bony ridges, which means that the brain is easily damaged." He goes on to mention that whiplash, blast injuries and blows to the head can cause the brain to slam hard into those interior ridges. That trauma to the head can cause or accelerate cognitive challenges and increase your risk of dementia.

This is why football players are at an increased risk for dementia, according to the Amen Clinics National Football League (NFL) Study.

So, how do you avoid this one? You protect your head in scenarios when you can, like wearing a bike helmet to go out on a bike ride, driving safely and trying to reduce falls. It's not perfect, but it's especially important to understand and monitor if you've experienced head trauma.

7. Smoking

There is strong evidence that smoking is associated with an increased risk of dementia. Smoking can increase your risk for health problems such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, and cognitive impairment, all of which are associated with a higher incidence of subsequent dementia. According to the World Health Organization, up to 14% of Alzheimer's disease cases are potentially attributed to smoking. Quitting can reduce your risk of the disease or delay its onset.

8. Depression

Depression can masquerade as dementia, or pseudodementia, causing immediate problems in memory and thinking that mimic signs of dementia. Ongoing, untreated depression can accelerate memory loss and lead to long-term complications.

Studies have shown that depression, psychiatric disorders such as bipolar and schizophrenia, ADHD and chronic stress can significantly increase the risk of memory problems, inflammation and vascular disease. 

Anything that negatively affects your mind also negatively affects your brain. It's important to get treated for mental health illnesses and to develop brain-healthy habits to lower stress and boost happiness. Exercise, meditation, therapy and medication may all help manage these conditions.

9. Social Isolation

This is a big one, especially when it comes to our seniors or those who are already experiencing cognitive challenges and are creating space between themselves and others to mask or minimize the chances of others noticing. But social isolation can lead to cognitive decline and increase your risk of dementia.

According to the Lancet Commission report, "Social contact, now an accepted protective factor, enhances cognitive reserve or encourages beneficial behaviors... Several studies suggest that less social contact increases the risk of dementia."

10. Physical Inactivity

Not exercising is a risk factor for dementia. 

Living a sedentary lifestyle contributes to high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. Exercise is a key preventative component to lower incidence of associated conditions and to keep your brain healthy.

Physical exercise can increase blood flow and oxygen to the brain, especially in the hippocampus, or the memory-related region of the brain. Exercise has additional brain benefits by potentially improving your sleep, stress management and risk of depression all of which impact your risk of dementia.

11. Diabetes

Have you head of Alzheimer's is being dubbed "type 3 diabetes?"

That's because there is a strong correlation between diabetes and reduced blood flow to the brain, which is a big indicator of future memory problems. Risk factors for diabetes include aging, a family history of the disease, excessive sugar intake, obesity, alcohol abuse and living a sedentary lifestyle. It's important to address these concerns and monitor for signs of diabetes with your doctor.

12. Air Pollution

And finally, air pollution.

Air pollution is associated with overall poor health outcomes, including for your brain. Depending on where you live, it can be hard to control this factor, but whenever possible, reduce your exposure to air pollution and second-hand tobacco smoke.

The combined effect of the 12 modifiable risk factors for dementia

According to the Lancet Commission, addressing all 12 modifiable risk factors could prevent or delay up to 40% of dementia cases worldwide. 

In other words, your individual physical and mental wellbeing matter when it comes to reducing your risk of dementia and mitigating the next world health crisis. Addressing these risk factors will improve your overall health now and in the future. 

Here are some changes you can begin to make:

Remember, it's never too early or too late to start making changes to your lifestyle to support your health now and reduce your risk of disease.

  • Address your hearing loss. Schedule an appointment with an Audiologist for assessment and treatment.
  • Limit alcohol intake.
  • Live an active life and prioritize physical exercise.
  • Stop smoking and reduce your exposure to second-hand smoke.
  • Continue life-long learning.
  • Reach out for support. Communicate with your doctor about your risk factors. Monitor health conditions like hypertension and diabetes. Aim for optimal numbers and change your diet and lifestyle to achieve those numbers.
  • Invest in your health. Put in the time and energy now.

Holistic memory health support

In the report, experts continue to discuss the benefits of holistic memory health support to prevent memory loss and to stop or slow progression of the disease. Even individuals with dementia can benefit from focusing on their wellness to stave off progression of the disease, especially in the early stages. 

Be ambitious about your memory health and prevention.

Knowledge is power, but only if you act on it.

As a holistic memory health coach, I work with people to overcome and prevent memory loss. Clients in my program learn how to support their memory, strengthen it and keep it healthy for a lifetime.

Investing your time and energy in a personalized memory health plan can save you years of stress and frustration. If you're experiencing signs of memory change and you're ready to take action, click here to schedule a free, zero risk 30-minute coaching call with me to learn more about how I can help.


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Meet the Coach

Hey there! I'm Francine, a speech-language pathologist turned memory health coach with a passion for helping you overcome your memory problems.

In my practice, I help women trade memory problems for confidence and clarity everyday so they can think clearly and remember easily, without constant self-doubt weighing them down. 

If you're struggling with poor recall and foggy thinking, you're in the right place and I want to help you!


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