Are You At Risk for Developing Dementia?

Take action to gain control of your risk factors



According to the World Health Organization, over 50 million people all over the globe live with dementia in a given year. Putting it in perspective, that number looks like:

  • 103 Atlantas
  • 60 Jacksonvilles
  • 23 Houstons
  • 13 Los Angeleses
  • 6 New York Cities

So many lives are touched each year by dementia that it's natural to wonder if you're at risk for developing this syndrome. Let's have a look at what dementia is, its risk factors and what medical professionals say you can do to lower your risk of developing this debilitating state. 

What is dementia?
Dementia isn’t a specific disease. It’s a general term used to describe a decrease in mental ability severe enough to impact how you’re able to complete daily living activities.

Dementia can present as:

  • Forgetfulness
  • A decrease in reasoning and/or judgment
  • Getting lost in familiar places
  • Decreased ability to remember familiar names and faces

Dementia is a progressive condition that gets worse over time. It’s also easy to dismiss the early stages of dementia as the early warning signs (forgetfulness, losing track of time and other mild symptoms) are things that happen to everyone.

The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s Disease, which accounts for roughly 60 to 70 percent of all dementia cases. There are also several other types of dementia, each with its own unique symptoms and speed of progression.

What puts you at risk of developing dementia? 
Dementia is caused by damage to the brain. This damage may be the result of a head injury or a stroke. It can also stem from other conditions such as Alzheimer's disease or long-term high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, which can lead to conditions like vascular dementia.

While researchers are still determining whether dementia is preventable, they have discovered some risk factors.  

  • Age.  Dementia has a higher prevalence in people over 65.
  • Genetics. People with a family history of Alzheimer's have shown a higher risk of developing the disease. 
  • Diabetes. This disease is a commonly known risk factor for both Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.
  • Cardiovascular disease and high cholesterol. High blood pressure, atherosclerosis and high cholesterol levels all increase the risk of developing dementia.
  • Smoking and alcohol use. Smoking can increase the risk of atherosclerosis and has been shown to increase the risk of mental decline and dementia. Abuse of alcohol has also proven to lead to mental decline. 

What can you do to prevent dementia?
While the medical community still isn't sure about the absolute causes of dementia, there are factors within your control. Here are some of the actions you can take to gain control of your health and help keep dementia at bay.

  • Quit smoking. You’ll lower your risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke.
  • Boost physical activity. Activity increases blood flow to the brain and boosts cardiovascular health.
  • Improve your diet. Eat fewer processed foods and red meat and more fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains (a heart-healthy diet).
  • Stay social and keep mentally active. You’ll form community bonds that keep you physically and mentally active.
  • Prevent head trauma. Simple acts like wearing your seatbelt and putting on a bike helmet can help prevent head injuries.

In addition to the steps above, you can also explore your family's health history for any cases of dementia. Should you find that someone in your family was afflicted with a dementia disease, start a conversation with your doctor. Together, you and your doctor can develop a plan to assess your risk and take action to decrease your factors.

E. Napoletano is an award-winning journalist and the recipient of the 2019 Illinois Women’s Press Association first-place prize for her feature on the traumatic effects of family separation policies at the border.