According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 50 million people have dementia worldwide and there are nearly 10 million new cases every year.
What’s more, there is a lack of awareness and understanding of dementia, making it difficult to treat, manage, and prevent. But as risk factors are brought to light and better understood, researchers are learning and addressing how to prevent dementia and cope with the devastating condition.
What Is Dementia?
The Alzheimer’s Association defines dementia as “a general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life.”
While dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (AD) are often used interchangeably, there are distinctions between the two.
Dementia itself is not a specific condition but a descriptive term to describe various symptoms that follow cognitive declination. Common symptoms can include impairments of:
- Coordination and motor function
- Visual Perception
Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia and the most common form, accounting for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases.
Nonetheless, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are caused when brain cells are impaired, which can arise from numerous dementia risk factors.
Causes and Risk Factors of Dementia
Dementia is caused by damage to brain cells. This damage interferes with the cells to effectively communicate with one another and compromises brain functions related to thinking, behavior, and feelings.
As researchers learn more about the underlying cause dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, they are learning there are many risk factors involved.
Researchers attest there is not one single cause of dementia, but rather a cumulation genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors, some of which can be modified, while others cannot.
Advancing age is the best known risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, though it is not a destined or normal part of the aging process.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), while younger people may still get AD, symptoms of the disease first appear after age 60 and risk increases with age.
Furthermore, the number of people living with AD doubles every 5 years after the age of 65.
Family history is also one of the most noted risk factors of dementia. Those who have a parent, brother or sister with Alzheimer’s are more likely to develop the disease according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
The Alzheimer’s Society reports if a family member developed Alzheimer’s disease at an earlier age, or less than 60 years-old, there is a greater chance that it may be a type of Alzheimer’s disease that can be passed on.
There is also a genetic component for developing dementia. Specific genes have been identified as increasing the risk for developing dementia, including risk and deterministic genes.
- Risk Genes: The most common risk gene associated to late-onset Alzheimer’s disease is apolipoprotein E (APOE), including its three common forms of APOE e2, e3, and e4. These genes increase the likelihood of developing the disease.
- Deterministic Genes: Though rare, deterministic genes guarantee a diagnosis of the disease. Specific to Alzheimer’s disease, the deterministic genes involve amyloid precursor protein (APP), presenilin 1 (PSEN1) and 2 (PSEN2). These genes cause early-onset Alzheimer’s, in which signs and symptoms likely occur between ages 30 and 60.
Genetic testing can help determine whether or not these genes are present.
Overweight and Obesity
Being considered overweight or obese can significantly increase the odds of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
Recent research published in Molecular Psychiatry found midlife overweight predicts earlier onset of AD and greater burden of Alzheimer’s neuropathology, and that maintaining a healthy BMI at midlife may delay the onset of AD.
Though overweight and obesity has multiple influences, lifestyle factors increase the risk of weight gain and developing dementia:
- Inadequate Diet. Consuming a poor diet rich in sugar, fat, and other processed foods increases the risk of becoming overweight. The Alzheimer’s Association additionally links an increased risk related to the intake of processed cheeses and meats. Proteins from the cheese are suggested to build up within the body while meat releases nitrosamine, both of which may be harmful to the brain. Certain nutritional deficiencies can also increase the risk of developing dementia symptoms.
- Sedentary Lifestyle. Increasing research continues to acknowledge exercise is not only beneficial to physical health, but mental health as well. A recent study further highlights sedentary seniors are more likely to suffer from mental decline.
Certain Health Conditions and Disorders
There are multiple health conditions and disorders that can increase the risk of dementia. These include, but are not limited to:
- Heart Disease: High blood pressure (hypertension), high cholesterol (hypercholesterolemia), and other conditions that harm heart and blood vessels increase the risk of dementia. Particularly linked to vascular dementia, a reduced blood flow to the brain deprives brain cells of vital nutrients and oxygen and compromises brain function.
- Diabetes: Though doctors do not know the exact link between dementia and diabetes, elevations in blood sugar can harm the brain, heart, and blood vessels. The American Diabetes Association verifies a concurrent dramatic rise in type 2 diabetes and both Alzheimer’s and vascular dementias, and that targeting treatments on diabetes may reduce the impact of cognitive decline and dementia.
- Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI): There is a link between dementia and traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), in which symptoms can emerge years after the injury occurs. Falls are the leading cause of TBIs for all ages, while car accidents and sport injuries are other examples of injuries to the brain and skill.
- Parkinson’s Disease: Parkinson’s disease and other neurological diseases can increase the risk of developing dementia in the future.
- Down Syndrome: The Alzheimer’s Association reports more than 75 percent of those with Down syndrome age 65 and older have Alzheimer’s disease. Because people with Down syndrome live, on average, 55 to 60 years, they are more likely to develop younger-onset Alzheimer’s.
- Depression: People who feel depressed increase their risk of developing dementia, or may even be misdiagnosed for having dementia. They also often withdraw from social interaction and may isolate themselves, which may speed up brain deterioration.
Smoking and Alcohol Use
There is a strong link between tobacco and dementia, as 14 percent of Alzheimer’s disease cases worldwide may be attributed to smoking. Second-hand smoke exposure can also increase the risk, though quitting can could reduce such likelihood for smokers and those who are surrounded by it.
Heavy drinking habits also increase the possibility of dementia. According to a study published in Epidemiology, binge drinking in midlife is associated with an increased risk of dementia.
How to Prevent Dementia
Though some dementia risk factors cannot be changed, including age and genetics, there are tips to help reduce the risk. These modifications can also be implemented in day-to-day life.
- Manage weight and health conditions, including hypertension and diabetes
- Consume a nutritious, balanced diet and lower the intake of highly processed foods
- Exercise the body and brain regularly
- Physically protect the brain, particularly by wearing seat belts and helmets and ensuring home safety
- Stop smoking
- Moderate alcohol use, or limiting to 2 servings daily for men and 1 for women
- Manage stress
- Sleep at least 7 to 9 hours nightly
- Participate in social activities and hobbies
Ultimately, a healthcare professional can help identify risk factors and develop a personalized plan to protect from dementia. They can further recommended services from a dietitian, counselor, and other interdisciplinary team members.
Dementia. Alzheimer’s Association.