Managing key risk factors may lower your dementia risk

Close to 6 million adults in the U.S. are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease or a related form of dementia, according to CDC data. And that number will grow as the U.S. population ages. The number of people with Alzheimer’s and related forms of dementia is projected to increase to approximately 14 million over the next 38 years.

Dementia impacts not only the people who develop this condition but also those who care for them. Caregivers face higher levels of stress, which in turn can increase the risk of a range of physical and mental health issues, including heart disease, diabetes, depression and anxiety, headaches, sleep problems, irritable bowel syndrome, and dementia. There’s also a financial impact. Caregivers still in the workforce often have to cut back on their hours or leave their jobs to handle their caregiving responsibilities.

Considering the significant impact of dementia on both the people diagnosed with the condition and their caregivers, proactively managing your future risk is wise. The good news is that researchers have found several modifiable risk factors for dementia. That means there are proactive steps you can take that are associated with a lower risk of developing dementia.

In a 2020 study, researchers identified 12 modifiable risk factors that were associated with 40% of the cases of dementia diagnosed around the world. Those risk factors include:

  • 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 risk factors being larger contributors to risk. All three are related to cardiovascular health –high blood pressure, obesity, and physical inactivity. Black Americans had the highest percentage of dementia cases related to these risk factors.

Five strategies to help lower your dementia risk

There are some risk factors for Alzheimer’s and related dementias that you cannot control, for example, age and family history. But making proactive lifestyle changes can help you manage the risk factors associated with dementia that are modifiable. These changes can also improve your overall cardiovascular health and lower the risk of other health issues like diabetes and certain cancers. Start with these five lifestyle changes:

Make cardiovascular health a priority. The three top dementia risk factors—high blood pressure, obesity, and physical inactivity—negatively impact heart health. To lower your risk, get regular blood pressure screenings. If your doctor prescribes medication to control your blood pressure, take it as directed. Maintain a healthy weight by eating a diet that includes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, healthy fats, and lean proteins. Getting moderate physical activity most days of the week is also important. Get screened for diabetes as your primary care provider recommends, and manage your blood sugar if you’re diagnosed with diabetes or prediabetes.

Break unhealthy habits. Quit if you smoke or vape. Your primary care provider can suggest approaches to smoking cessation that are appropriate for you. If you drink alcohol, do it in moderation. For men, no more than two drinks a day, and one drink for women.

Manage your mental health. If you experience 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, talk to your primary care provider. Your provider can perform a depression screening and refer you to a mental health provider as needed. Social connections are also key to good mental health. Regular calls and visits with friends and family, joining a hobby or activity group, and volunteering is all good ways to stay socially connected.

Get your hearing tested. If you have any difficulty hearing or notice a change in your hearing, ask your primary care provider to assess whether you should be evaluated by an audiologist. Use hearing protection when you’re around loud noises like leaf blowers or power tools. And keep the volume moderate when listening to music, watching T.V. or streaming content, or gaming.

Prevent head injuries. Wear an appropriate, properly fitted helmet when riding a bike, motorcycle, ATV, or scooter. Wear head protection if you play contact sports, ski or snowboard, ride horses, or play baseball or softball. Always use your seat belt and never drive under the influence or ride in a car with an impaired driver.

Miles J. Varn is chief executive officer, PinnacleCare, and can be reached on LinkedIn.

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