Risks of developing dementia

Alzheimer’s and other dementias are linked to certain genetic mutations. Studies show that lifestyle changes can prevent around 30% of these mutations. Taking steps to reduce your dementia risk can help reduce your chance of developing other serious health conditions. Here are the top risk factors associated with dementia, and what you can do about them.


Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and frontotemporal dementia are hereditary. The interaction between your genes and lifestyle cause most forms of dementia.

A study in the United Kingdom looked at almost 40,000 people with a gene mutation linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. Those who had a healthy lifestyle were less likely to have dementia compared to those who followed unhealthy an diet, got little exercise, and had other poor habits.

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Not Enough Physical Activity

Exercise reduces the risk of vascular dementia by increasing blood flow to the brain. An inactive lifestyle can cause a buildup of plaque and cholesterol. This can block or narrow those blood vessels and lead to vascular dementia.

Research suggests physical activity may reduce the risk of other types of dementia. Several studies found that people who made exercise a priority throughout their lives were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those who were inactive.

The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, including strength training. A brisk walk counts as moderate physical activity. Those who engage in vigorous physical activity like running should aim for at least 75 minutes per week.

Unhealthy Diets

Diets rich in saturated fats, sugar, salt, and cholesterol can lead to high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and obesity — all associated with higher rates of dementia. Heart-healthy diets are key to preventing vascular dementia because they reduce the risk of cholesterol and fats building up in blood vessels.

To lower the risk of dementia, experts recommend that people limit processed, salty, and sugary foods, reduce animal fats, and increase fruit, vegetable, and whole grain intake.

Low Levels of Social Interaction and Cognitive Stimulation

Brain cells seem to support the “use it or lose it” theory.

Cognitive decline is linked to high levels of social and cognitive stimulation in old age. Engaging in conversations, doing brain-teaser puzzles, reading, and other mentally stimulating activities are associated with a reduced risk of dementia.

On the flipside, a study of almost 3,700 adults found that watching television for more than 3.5 hours a day lowered cognitive function.

Obesity, High Blood Pressure, and Diabetes

High blood pressure and obesity can lead to decreased blood flow to the brain which can cause cognitive decline. With diabetes, the link remains unclear. A recent study suggests that those with well-managed diabetes are at less risk than those with frequent high blood sugar peaks. However, many people with these conditions may not develop dementia.


Toxins in cigarette smoke can increase both inflammation and cell-damaging free radicals in the brain — both linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Plus, smoking is known to increase the risk of stroke, which can cause vascular dementia. Research suggests that over the years, the body can recover dramatically from the damage caused by smoking.

If you’re a smoker, quitting today can reduce your risk of developing dementia.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

Alzheimer's Association. Prevention. https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/research_progress/prevention

Dr. Daisy Fancourt. (2019). Television viewing and cognitive decline in older age: findings from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Scientific Reports. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-39354-4

Dr. Kristine Yaffe. (2018). Modifiable Risk Factors and Prevention of Dementia. JAMA Internal Medicine. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/article-abstract/2665382

Dr. Ilianna Lourida, et al. (2019). Association of Lifestyle and Genetic Risk with Incidence of Dementia. Journal of the American Medical Association. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2738355

Dr. Mary Lacy et al. (2018). Long-term Glycemic Control and Dementia Risk in Type 1 Diabetes. Diabetes Care (American Diabetes Association). https://doi.org/10.2337/dc18-0073

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