Brain Health

Top Dementia Risk Factors


Have you experienced losing the car keys, forgetting the name of an acquaintance, or grasping for a word? This is pretty typical for most of us in midlife, but when should you worry if these minor lapses might transition into dementia or Alzheimer’s disease? 

First, it’s essential to know the differences between Alzheimer’s and dementia

Alzheimer’s disease is a condition that is the most common cause of dementia. It is a complex brain change that occurs with cell damage and accounts for sixty to eighty percent of dementia cases. Dementia, on the other hand, is a mental ability decline that interferes with daily life. The symptoms of dementia include a decline in memory and difficulty with communicating, reasoning, or other cognitive skills.

During menopause, women can also experience “brain fog,” which is not a medical condition. Brain fog symptoms can sometimes seem like dementia symptoms. These symptoms may include feeling “fuzzy” in the head, forgetting the names of items, and the inability to concentrate. If you experience an increase in memory issues during menopause, it is best to consult your provider to be on the safe side.

Currently, it is not possible to prevent dementia. If your healthcare provider suspects dementia, extra tests may be necessary to rule out other possible causes of cognitive decline. At times, there are reversible causes of dementia: 

  • Alcohol-related dementia
  • Depression
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Medication side effects
  • Vitamin B12 deficiency
  • Sleep apnea and other sleep disturbances
Being overweight and eating a poor diet are two of the major risk factors for dementia.

Modifiable Risk Factors For Dementia

The good news is that evidence is growing on modifiable risk factors for dementia. Risk factors do not cause dementia. A risk factor may increase the odds of getting dementia, but it does not mean a diagnosis of dementia is inevitable. Managing risk factors may lessen the odds of dementia, which is also good for your overall health.

The 12 modifiable risk factors for dementia include the following, representing forty percent of worldwide dementias:

  • Diabetes
  • Excessive alcohol consumption 
  • Hearing loss
  • High blood pressure
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Obesity
  • Poor diet
  • Smoking
  • Air pollution
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Social isolation
  • Less education

Certain risk factors for dementia are uncontrollable: 

  • Age – the risk of having dementia rises as you age
  • Sex – sixty-five percent of people with dementia are women 
  • Genetics – a family history of dementia increases the risk

Early Menopause and Dementia Risk 

Menopause occurs when ovaries stop making hormones, with the average age of onset for women being 52 years. Early menopause happens to women between the ages of 40 to 45 and may occur in five percent of women. Researchers discovered that women who experience early menopause are thirty-five percent more likely to develop dementia. Furthermore, studies show that lowered estrogen levels might increase oxidative stress, contributing to cognitive decline. 

Does MHT Lower or Increase Dementia Risk? 

Studies regarding menopausal hormone therapy (MHT) and decreasing the risk of dementia have been inconsistent. In a large observational study of British women, no increased risk of dementia occurred with estrogen-only MHT. However, the study also revealed that an estrogen-progesterone combination for more than five years might increase the risk of dementia. 

In another study, the timing of MHT was crucial. If a woman started MHT between the ages of 50-54, no neurological deficits occurred. Yet, if a woman took MHT between the ages of 65-79, the study showed these patients exhibited deficits in memory. 

Although studies are conflicting, you can take action to stay mentally healthy during menopause. 

A healthy social life (not too much alcohol) is a key risk-reduction strategy for all ages.

Action Plan to Lower Dementia Risk

Lowering your risk of dementia includes modifying your risk factors. Three key areas to focus on include daily habits, controlling medical issues, and maintaining mental health. 

Daily habits that lower the risk of dementia

  • Do not smoke: smoking damages the brain cells 
  • Get adequate sleep: uninterrupted sleep helps the brain repair itself
  • Eat healthily: a Mediterranean-type diet correlates with a lower risk of dementia
  • Exercise: regular physical activity can protect brain function
  • Limit sugar intake: consuming sugar can increase brain fog and mild cognitive impairment
  • Prevent head injury: drive safely and avoid falls
  • Limit your exposure to air pollution: pay attention to pollution levels in your area and stay indoors if the outdoor air is unhealthy or wear a mask

Medical treatments for health conditions

  • Treat heart problems to maintain blood flow to the brain
  • Control high blood pressure that can also damage the brain
  • Get a hearing test—hearing loss may account for eight percent of dementia cases—and use a hearing aid if you need one
  • Take control of your blood sugar, as increased levels can impact brain fog

Mental health maintenance

  • Maintain friendships, or make new acquaintances
  • Maintain an active social calendar for group activities
  • Learn something new! Engage in a new hobby or class, particularly one that challenges the brain, like learning a language or a new software program
  • Go back to school and finish your degree
  • Read or write every day
  • Play games or puzzles

It’s never too early or too late to make changes to lower your dementia risk. A plan to lower your risk for dementia can soon turn into ingrained healthy habits. These new habits will also promote positive physical and mental health and decrease brain fog episodes. Minimizing the risk of dementia is possible with a commitment to healthy habits.

Looking for more expert tips on brain health? Download Midday from the App Store or visit us at Midday.Health.

Sara Egnatz BSN, RN-BC is a nurse and freelance health content writer. 

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