12 Ways to Reduce the Risk of Dementia in Your Senior Loved One
Prevention of dementia can’t be guaranteed, but there are concrete steps you can take to reduce the chance that your aging loved one will develop dementia, or minimize the extent of any cognitive decline.
Most of these steps will also improve your loved one’s general health, happiness, and independence.
Let’s take a quick look at what causes dementia, then we’ll review the risk factors that make it more likely to develop. Lastly, we’ll outline the twelve things you can do as a family caregiver to significantly decrease the risk that your loved one will develop dementia.
What Causes Dementia?
Dementia isn’t a specific disease. The word dementia refers to cognitive (thinking) difficulties severe enough to interfere with daily life. In addition to memory loss, this can include trouble finding words, problem-solving, reasoning, or decision-making.
There are many different diseases and conditions that cause dementia. The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease.
Causes of Alzheimer’s disease:
Alzheimer's disease is caused by a buildup of certain biomarkers called tau and amyloid proteins in the brain.
Scientists aren’t sure exactly what leads to the buildup of these proteins, but controlled trials suggest it’s the result of multiple factors that affect the brain over time. Some of these factors are genetic and others have to do with the environment or lifestyle choices.
For example, people who smoke or are exposed to heavy air pollution have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Diet and activity levels – physical, mental, and social activity – seem to also play a part. These factors are covered in more detail below.
The second most common cause is vascular dementia. Other causes of dementia include diseases like Parkinson’s or Huntington’s disease.
Causes of vascular dementia:
Vascular dementia can be caused by strokes or cardiovascular disease.
The same things that increase the risk for stroke and heart disease – like high cholesterol, hypertension (high blood pressure), and smoking – affect blood vessel health and increase the risk of vascular dementia.
Sometimes the cause of dementia is treatable. If so, such as in the case of certain nutritional deficiencies or infections, it can be reversed and cognitive function restored.
In other cases, like syphilis, the condition can be treated but any cognitive damage that’s done can’t be reversed, so it’s very important to have a full medical examination at the earliest signs of cognitive decline.
What Are 12 Ways To Lower The Risk Of Dementia?
If you support your loved one to take these actions, you can help your loved one stay as physically and cognitively healthy as possible, reducing their risk of dementia or at least slowing the rate of their cognitive decline.
In some cases, taking these steps may even enhance their cognitive functioning, general health, and happiness.
1. Protect hearing and treat any hearing loss
Avoid loud sounds when possible, and wear earplugs or other ear protection when they can’t be avoided. Consult an audiologist for even mild hearing loss, and use hearing aids or other interventions as recommended.
2. Keep learning
Help keep your loved one’s mind nimble and brain healthy by supporting them to continually pursue new knowledge and skills. Try new hobbies, take classes at a community center, or try out cognitive training programs designed to challenge and stimulate the brain.
3. Stop smoking
If your loved one has struggled to quit smoking, support them to find help. There are many ways to achieve this goal.
Talk to their doctor or visit the CDC website for ideas and resources.
4. Treat depression
Think about the past two weeks. If more often than not your loved one has felt down, depressed or hopeless, or had little interest or pleasure in doing things, you should talk to their doctor or mental health care professional to evaluate for depression.
5. Move every day
According to the National Institutes for Health (NIH), most adults should aim for 150 - 300 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week, although any physical activity is better than none. They also recommend reducing time spent sitting.
Talk to your loved one’s doctor about their particular activity needs and challenges.
6. Protect yourself from head injuries
Help your loved one wear a seatbelt every time they ride in a vehicle, and wear a helmet when bicycling, skiing, or enjoying other risky activities.
Take steps to minimize the chance of falling around your loved one’s house.
7. Connect with others and engage in personally meaningful activities
Your loved one needs to engage regularly with others in social activities that feel personally meaningful, especially those that promote feelings of being productive, valuable, and connected. Many older adults find volunteer work to be a great source of meaningful connection, so you could look for ways to support them to volunteer in their community.
Consider making a social media account for your loved one to stay connected to family and friends from the comfort of their own home.
Learn more about How Technology Can Boost Social Connection For You & Your Loved One.
8. Manage blood pressure
Ask your loved one’s doctor how often you should be checking their blood pressure. For some, monitoring at each doctor’s appointment is plenty, while others should check their blood pressure multiple times per day.
Use blood pressure medication as prescribed.
Avoid overindulging in caffeine or alcohol.
Stick to a heart-healthy diet, such as the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, nuts, and healthy fats such as olive oil.
Talk to your loved one’s doctor about their specific dietary needs and any recommended nutritional supplements.
9. Avoid air pollution
Monitor air quality levels and ensure that your loved one stays indoors when pollution is high.
Use high-grade air filters indoors, and use an exhaust fan while cooking or using a fireplace.
Close car windows while driving in heavy traffic.
10. Maintain a healthy weight
Ensure your loved one eats a healthy diet and stays active to support a healthy weight.
Obesity is directly tied to an increased risk for dementia, and it’s also associated with an increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension – all risk factors of dementia in their own regard. Ask your loved one’s doctor to connect you with a dietician to help develop a diet plan that works for your loved one in their current circumstances.
Consider working with a personal trainer or making arrangements with a friend to go for a walk each day as part of an overall wellness plan.
11. Work with a healthcare provider to prevent or treat health conditions including diabetes, vascular disease, and heart conditions
It can be tempting to skip the checkup when there’s no urgent need, but routine appointments are essential for finding potential health issues when they’re small and easier to treat – before they’ve had a chance to damage cognitive health.
Talk to your doctor to understand your loved one’s risk for prediabetes. If they have diabetes or prediabetes, be vigilant about controlling their blood sugar.
Type 2 diabetes can often be managed through dietary choices, physical activity, and healthy weight management. Some diabetics may require medications to manage blood sugar levels.
12. Develop healthy coping skills
Aging can be tough and the losses your loved one may be experiencing – such as friends, family members, home, independence, or abilities – can bring up many uncomfortable emotions.
Connect your loved one with a mental health counselor to explore difficult emotions, especially if you find they’re eating, smoking, drinking, or engaging in other unhealthy habits to cope with stress or grief.
Which Dementia Risk Factors Can’t Be Modified?
Some risk factors for dementia can’t be changed.
The risk of developing dementia increases after the age of 65.
Race and ethnicity seem to impact the likelihood a person may develop dementia.
For example, a 2022 study published in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) showed a much higher incidence of dementia among Black and Hispanic patients as compared to their white counterparts. However, the exact reasons why ethnicity affects risk are still being investigated.
Scientists have identified certain genes (such as APOE ε4) that seem to correlate to a higher risk for developing Alzheimer’s dementia, and it appears that people with a family history of the disease may have an increased risk of developing it themselves.
However, many people with no family history do develop dementia – and many people who have the genes never do – and it’s not yet completely understood why.
Mild Cognitive Impairment
Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a condition that affects cognition to some extent, but not enough to severely interfere with daily life.
Older adults with MCI develop Alzheimer’s or dementia at a much higher rate than those without MCI. However, not all people with MCI go on to develop dementia.
What Are The Modifiable Risk Factors for Dementia?
The Lancet, a highly respected medical journal, occasionally sponsors special commissions to address public health crises and other areas of particular concern to the medical community.
In 2017, the Lancet Commission on dementia released a landmark report on dementia prevention, intervention, and care, in which they detailed nine major risk factors that could be influenced by lifestyle changes. In 2020, the Commission updated its report, adding three more risk factors to the list.
Remarkably, the Commission estimated that 40% of dementia cases could be delayed or prevented completely by addressing these risk factors.
(The numbers listed in parenthesis represent the percentage of dementia cases that could be prevented or delayed by targeting each risk factor.)
1. Hearing Loss (9%)
Scientists estimate that an astounding 9% of dementia worldwide could be prevented if all hearing loss was eradicated.
Hearing loss is closely tied with dementia, and while scientists don’t entirely understand the relationship yet, it’s clear that even mild hearing loss should be treated.
People with hearing loss have to work harder to process information, which may tire the brain and lead to cognitive decline. Older adults with hearing loss are also at a higher risk for social isolation and depression, other risk factors for dementia.
2. Education (8%)
People who have not attended college are at a higher risk for developing dementia in later life, and the Lancet Commission estimates that 8% of dementia around the world could be prevented by increasing educational levels.
They believe this is because post-secondary education improves brain health and increases the brain’s cognitive reserve – meaning it can function better even after it loses some cognitive ground.
3. Smoking (5%)
Smoking greatly increases the risk of dementia, and quitting reduces that risk considerably – current smokers are more likely to develop cognitive decline than former smokers.
If smoking was eliminated, the Lancet Commission estimates that 5% of the world’s cases of dementia would be as well.
4. Depression (4%)
There’s a definite link between depression and dementia, although its exact nature remains unclear.
People with depression are more likely to develop dementia in late life, and many people with dementia are clinically depressed. In some cases, symptoms of depression mimic dementia, and treating depression can often improve cognitive function.
5. Physical Inactivity (3%)
Physical activity is associated with a reduced risk of developing dementia, especially Alzheimer’s disease.
Regular exercise can reduce inflammation, improve cardiovascular and brain health, and boost metabolism. Just a half hour each day of moderate aerobic exercise can significantly impact the risk of dementia.
6. Traumatic Brain Injury (3%)
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) can result from sudden, severe bumps or blows to the head, such as in vehicle accidents, contact sports, military combat, or falls.
Even a single severe head injury increases the risk of dementia, and multiple concussions or TBIs increase the risk even more.
7. Social Isolation (2%)
Social isolation and loneliness are major risk factors for dementia as well as many other health conditions, including hypertension, heart disease, obesity, reduced immune function, and depression.
Older people who are suddenly alone after a partner’s death, or who can’t easily connect with others due to transportation or mobility issues, are particularly at risk for isolation and loneliness.
8. Hypertension (2%)
Midlife hypertension (high blood pressure) has been shown to increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.
Diets that are high in salt, fat, or cholesterol can contribute to high blood pressure, as can obesity, inactivity, diabetes, stress, and a family history of hypertension.
9. Air Pollution (2%)
Air pollution from car exhaust and other sources has been shown to increase the risk for many health conditions, including lung disease, heart disease, stroke, and dementia.
10. Obesity (1%)
Obesity has been tied to a greater risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia, as well as diabetes and high blood pressure, which are both associated with a greater risk for dementia themselves. Managing a healthy body weight through diet and exercise can reduce the risk of developing dementia.
11. Diabetes (1%)
Don’t skip this one just because you haven’t been diagnosed with diabetes – about one in every three Americans has diabetes or prediabetes, and most don’t even realize it!
Diabetics have a markedly increased risk of developing dementia – they are twice as likely to develop vascular dementia than non-diabetics. Meta-analysis studies strongly suggest that controlling blood sugar is one of the most important things people can do to protect their cognitive functioning.
12. Excessive Alcohol Use (1%)
Heavy drinking has been associated with a significantly increased risk of developing dementia, especially young onset dementia, which occurs before age 65. In fact, a 2018 French cohort study found that alcohol use disorders affected the age of dementia onset more than any other modifiable risk factor.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines heavy drinking for men as more than 14 drinks per week or more than 4 drinks in a single day. For women, the limits are 7 drinks per week or 3 per day.
Dementia Is Preventable – to Some Extent
There are multiple types of dementia and many risk factors at play for each type. Not all risk factors can be changed, but many can.
By ensuring your loved one takes steps toward leading a healthy lifestyle in general, they will enjoy a reduced risk for dementia as well as a healthier, happier, and more independent lifestyle all the way around.
As you’re considering ways to lower the risk of dementia developing in your loved one, don’t forget to take these steps towards risk reduction in your own life as well. Family caregivers may be at a heightened risk for developing dementia as compared to the non-caregiving population, so by taking action now, you can significantly impact your future health and well-being.