Study: 12 Key Risks and 3 Protective Factors for Early Dementia

by Staff Writer
December 28, 2023 at 10:05 AM UTC

Explore the factors that increase early dementia risk and discover protective measures.

Clinical Relevance: Dementia risk is multifaceted, with many factors that can be mitigated by lifestyle changes and early intervention

  • A new study from the UK Biobank looked at 15 modifiable risk factors associated with young-onset dementia.
  • Genetics, orthostatic hypotension, high C-reactive protein levels, depression, stroke, heart disease, diabetes, vitamin D deficiency, lower socioeconomic status, hearing impairment, social isolation, and alcohol abuse were associated with a higher risk of early onset dementia.
  • Moderate alcohol use, higher formal education, and better handgrip strength were associated with lower risk of early dementia.

Here’s a useful year-end listicle that’s packed full of actionable steps for preventing early onset of dementia. Thanks to a brand new JAMA Neurology study of more than 350,000 participants younger than 65, it’s all substantiated by science. 

Exeter and Maastricht University researchers isolated genetic, environment, and lifestyle factors from the UK Bank Study that show influence on the risk of developing dementia at a younger age. Twelve factors had a negative impact. Three factors were protective. Most of these factors can be modified by increasing awareness of their impact and implementing deliberate lifestyle changes.

The 12 detrimental factors tied to an increased risk of early dementia, as identified by the study…

Genetic Risk (APOE)

Numerous studies find a significant connection between the APOE gene and the risk of developing dementia. People carrying a specific variant of this gene, known as APOE4, have a notably higher chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. In fact, those with the APOE4 variant can be up to three times more likely to develop the condition compared to those without it. While you can’t do much about genetics, this knowledge can help inform early detection and intervention strategies.

Orthostatic Hypotension

Orthostatic Hypotension, or OH, occurs when a person moving from sitting to standing experiences a sudden drop in blood pressure. Studies indicate that individuals with OH have a 15-30 percent higher risk of developing dementia compared to those without the condition. Reduced cerebral blood flow, leading to decreased oxygen and nutrient delivery to the brain, appears to drive OH’s link to dementia.When it happens repeatedly over a long period of time it can erode cognition. The good news here is that OH is often treatable with lifestyle changes like better hydration and electrolyte balance, and by wearing compression garments. If medication is a trigger, adjusting drug regimens may also help.

High C-reactive Protein Levels

High levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), is a marker of inflammation in the body. Some research suggests that elevated CRP levels can increase the risk of developing dementia up to 25 percent. This is because higher CRP levels are often indicative of underlying health issues such as cardiovascular disease, which can impact brain function and accelerate cognitive decline. The average person may not be routinely aware of their CRP numbers as it’s not a standard part of most health check-ups and there are no specific guidelines. It’s worth discussing with a healthcare provider because they can be managed with lifestyle changes, medication, and treatment for underlying health conditions.

Depression

Clinical depression has been identified as a significant risk factor for dementia, with studies suggesting a complex and bidirectional relationship between the two conditions. The reason for the connection seems to be shared neurobiological pathways associated with risk factors such as changes in brain structure and function, chronic inflammation, and hormonal imbalances. Studies suggest that early detection and treatment of depression can help mitigate the risk of dementia.

Stroke

Individuals who have experienced a stroke are twice as likely to develop dementia compared to those who haven’t. Having a stroke disrupts blood flow to the brain, leading to brain cell damage that increases the likelihood of cognitive decline and dementia. The danger is further heightened if a person experiences multiple strokes. Proper prevention and management, such as controlling high blood pressure and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, are key strategies for reducing the chance of both stroke and dementia.

Diabetes

Diabetes is tied to a 50 percent increased risk of developing dementia, especially Alzheimer’s disease. This heightened association is primarily due to damage to blood vessels and blood sugar levels which can harm the brain over time. The connection underscores the importance of effective diabetes management, including maintaining healthy blood sugar levels, as a key strategy in reducing the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. 

Heart Disease

Proactive heart disease management preserves cognitive function. In fact, having a cardiovascular condition makes cognitive decline and dementia twice as likely, primarily due to the heart’s essential role in ensuring steady, healthy blood flow to the brain. Impaired heart function can lead to reduced cerebral perfusion, depriving the brain of vital oxygen and nutrients, which accelerates brain aging and increases neurodegenerative damage. 

Lower Socioeconomic Status

Social, economic, and environmental elements that contribute to a person’s living conditions influence the likelihood of a dementia diagnosis. People considered at a “socioeconomic disadvantage” are up to twice as likely to develop dementia compared to those who are better off. A combination of factors, including reduced access to healthcare, higher levels of stress, increased exposure to environmental toxins, and more, contribute to the increased susceptibility. Additionally, lower socioeconomic status often correlates with less education and fewer occupational opportunities, which can limit cognitive stimulation and resilience against neurological decline. 

Hearing Impairment

Hearing difficulties are another factor that doubles the risk of dementia due to added cognitive load and social isolation. Considering that approximately one in three people between the ages of 65 and 74 experience some degree of hearing impairment, this is a particularly concerning statistic. It also highlights the importance of early hearing loss detection and intervention as potential strategies to reduce dementia risk. 

Social Isolation

Prolonged periods of “high deprivation”, as the researchers refer to social isolation, can up the chances of dementia by as much as 50 percent. A growing body of research indicates the critical role of social engagement in maintaining cognitive health, especially in later years. Engaging in social activities not only stimulates the brain but also helps mitigate stress and depression, which contribute to neuro health. Maintaining strong social networks and staying tied to a community is one proactive strategy experts recommend to protect against dementia.

Vitamin D Deficiency

Experts are increasingly recognizing Vitamin D deficiency as a risk factor for dementia. Studies have found that individuals with low levels of D have a much greater chance of developing dementia, with some research suggesting that the odds are twice as high in those with severe deficiency. Although the science is emerging, it appears that vitamin D plays a crucial role in brain health, influencing nerve function and brain cell activity. Lack of adequate vitamin D, often due to limited sun exposure or poor diet, can thus impact brain function over time. Fortunately adjusting diet, taking supplements, and soaking in a bit of sun can potentially make a difference.

Alcohol Intoxication

There is a direct line between alcohol abuse and dementia, with heavy drinkers facing up to three times the risk of developing cognitive impairment compared to teetotalers. Chronic alcohol consumption causes brain damage and a decline in neurological functions which accelerate the onset of dementia. This correlation is particularly alarming given that approximately 14.5 million Americans live with alcohol use disorder (AUD), according to the National Institutes of Health. The damaging effects of booze on brain health compound over time but it’s never too late to seek treatment.

And the 3 factors the study identified as potential mitigators of early-dementia risk…

Moderate Alcohol Use

Surprise twist: moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a lower risk of dementia. Scientific studies suggest that women who have up to one drink per day, and men who have up to two drinks per day, may reduce their chances of developing dementia compared to those who abstain altogether. Alcohol’s potential to enhance heart health and boost brain blood flow, when consumed in small quantities, appears to actively contribute to its neuroprotective effect. However, it’s a delicate balance. As the study showed (and see above), excessive alcohol use significantly increases the risk of dementia and other health issues.

Higher Formal Education

Research shows that each additional year of education can reduce the risk of developing dementia by about 11 percent.
Education boosts brain resilience against dementia by building a stronger network of connections, enhancing the “cognitive reserve” or “brain bank” for neuroprotection. Additionally, education often encourages lifelong habits of mental stimulation and learning, which add to the brain’s resilience and help delay the onset of dementia-related symptoms by keeping the brain active and engaged.

Greater Handgrip Strength

Greater handgrip strength is emerging as an unexpected but promising marker in predicting dementia risk. For instance, research suggests that each 5-kilogram increase in grip strength reduces the risk of dementia by up to 18 percent. Why? A firm grip reflects overall muscle health and, by extension, brain health. Simple exercises like squeezing a tennis ball, using hand grippers, strength training, or practicing yoga can effectively increase grip strength, offering an accessible way to potentially preserve cognitive abilities. 

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