Certain lifestyle factors can sway the risk of dementia, and a new study points to the top threats to Americans these days: obesity, physical inactivity and lack of a high school diploma.
Researchers found that in just the past decade, there has been a shift in the most important modifiable risk factors for dementia in the United States. In 2011, the big three were physical inactivity, depression and smoking.
Today, lack of exercise is still among the top three, but the other spots have been replaced by obesity in middle-age and low education levels (not graduating from high school).
Risk factors vary according to race dementia
At the same time, the study found, that the top three are not one-size-fits-all: The leading modifiable risk factors for dementia vary somewhat according to race and ethnicity.
Obesity was the No. 1 factor among white, Black and Native American adults, while lack of exercise was the top threat to Asian Americans. Among Hispanic Americans, meanwhile, low educational attainment emerged as the top modifiable risk factor.
“Our results suggest that people may be able to reduce their risk of developing Alzheimer’s and [other types of] dementia by engaging in a healthy lifestyle,” says researcher Deborah Barnes, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.
The biggest risk factor for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia is older age, which people obviously cannot change. Genetic susceptibility is another major player; people who carry a gene variant called APOE4, for example, have a higher likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s than non-carriers do.
Modifiable risk factors
But it’s been estimated that about 40% of dementia cases worldwide can be attributed to modifiable risk factors, says Rebecca Edelmayer, senior director of scientific engagement for the Alzheimer’s Association.
Those include the top three found in this study, plus factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heavy drinking and hearing loss.
The reasons for those links are not fully clear, says Edelmayer, who was not involved in the new research. But cardiovascular health is thought to be one pathway. Obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking and a sedentary lifestyle can all damage