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4 Top Risk Factors Associated with Dementia

By studying data from the Framingham Heart Study (FHS), researchers from Boston University School of Medicine identified combinations of factors that were linked to an increased risk of dementia in older age. The findings were published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease on May 8th.

The researchers stated they wanted to focus on modifiable risk factors which could help people plan the right interventions to effectively reduce their chances of developing this neurological disease. 

The top four prominent life-related risk factors are listed below:

1. Age.

Not surprisingly, age is considered the most significant risk factors for this disease, which rarely affects those under the age of 60. According to estimations by the Alzheimer’s Association, one in three senior Americans dies with some form of dementia. There exists many forms of dementia, with Alzheimers being at the top.

On a related note, a 2018 study from the Yale School of Public Health found that attitudes toward aging may also play an important role. After analyzing a cohort of 4,765 older Americans, the research found that those with positive age beliefs were 49.8 percent less likely to develop dementia than those with negative age beliefs. 

2. BMI

Conflicting results have emerged from studies that examined body mass index (BMI) as a possible risk factor for dementia. While some suggest that lower BMI is the culprit, others have rejected this and found that a high BMI is what seems to be linked to an increased risk. A 2017 review concluded that a majority of literature has provided evidence that obesity in mid-life was linked to a higher risk of dementia, while the association of the disease with being underweight remained inconsistent at best.

It has been noted that excess body weight in mid-life could contribute to neurodegenerative damage, which may increase the chances of dementia. While there are currently no sure-fire ways to prevent dementia, current best evidence suggests that maintaining a healthy weight, including a reduction of inflammation associated with visceral fat around the waist is a key way to keep our brains healthy.

3. Marital Status

The new study also found that the marital status of “widowed” was strongly associated with dementia. Previously, research has provided similar findings on older adults who are single or have lost a spouse. Psychiatrists have come to the general consensus that the lower risk was not a direct effect of wearing a wedding ring. They referred to something known as “a possible protective effect”, which is linked to various lifestyle factors that may accompany marriage, such as lower chances of loneliness, a generally healthier lifestyle, having more social stimulation, etc.

4. Sleep

Those who experienced less sleep at mid-life may also be more likely to develop dementia. A study from 2017 found that people who took longer than 90 minutes to enter REM (the fifth stage of sleep) were at high risk for developing dementia. Though it is known that poor sleep can contribute to cognitive decline, the mechanisms underlying this association have not been firmly established. What is clear is that treating sleep disorders, establishing a routine, and learning to prioritize good quality of sleep hygiene is highly recommended earlier in life to avoid short-term and long-term health problems.

After combing through these risk factors, you might be surprised to learn that of the four listed, over half of them are well within our control like sleep, BMI, to some degree, and our perceptions of the aging process. It’s important not to discount the quality of sleep that we should be getting on a consistent basis, our overall BMI, and our general outlook/attitude in life. Being overweight can eventually tip the scale towards obesity, and researchers are concluding that high blood sugar (diabetes) can indirectly lead to Alzheimer’s, and others forms of dementia, a condition that doctors and researchers alike are calling Diabesity (diabetes & obesity). It turns out that certain aspects/factors of dementia are environmental, and we can be more in control of them than we initially thought — a somewhat comforting thought in light of this heartbreaking disease.

4 Top Risk Factors Associated with Dementia


Emily Waters

Emily Waters earned her Master's degree in industrial psychology with an emphasis in human relations. She possesses keen insight into the field of applied psychology, organizational development, motivation, and stress, the latter of which is ubiquitous in the workplace environment and in one’s personal life. One of her academic passions is the understanding of human nature and illness as it pertains to the mind and body. Prior to obtaining her degree, she worked in both the corporate and nonprofit sectors. Presently, she teaches a variety of psychology courses both in public and private universities.


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APA Reference
Waters, E. (2018). 4 Top Risk Factors Associated with Dementia. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 13, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/4-top-risk-factors-associated-with-dementia/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 25 Jul 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 25 Jul 2018
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