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Dementia is a condition associated with old age, but there are several risk factors that may suggest if one is likely to develop the condition when they grow older. Researchers have proposed simple assessment tools that can serve as valuable guides.

Significant loss of cognitive (mental) function that is severe enough to affect a person’s daily life is what we commonly call as dementia. Dementia is not a disease in itself, but a condition consisting of symptoms related to a decline in memory, reasoning, and thinking. These symptoms are often associated with elderly individuals (starting at 65 years or older), although they are not considered a normal part of the aging process. Many people do grow old with some symptoms of forgetfulness, but they are not severe enough to disrupt their daily functioning. On the other hand, people who develop dementia may experience progressive deterioration of mental functions that they will eventually require help to do basic functions such as eating, dressing up, and avoiding accidents.

Dementia is becoming more common, and studies suggest that about half of all people who reach the age of 80 years may suffer from this condition.

Many people begin to have signs of dementia by the time they are 65, and their risk doubles every five years. This is a bit scary for many, especially for those who have a close relative who have the condition. Many wonder, therefore, if they may be at risk of developing dementia, which may begin even at an earlier age.

Dementia: Causes And Risk Factors

Up to 60% of all people who develop dementia are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of severe loss of mental function.

Alzheimer’s disease is caused by the loss of neurons (nerve cells) in the brain. Other possible, but less common causes of dementia include Parkinson’s disease, stroke, head injury, infection of the brain, substance abuse, nutritional deficiencies, and more. Approximately 20% of these conditions are treatable causes of dementia, while the rest remain untreatable.

Much research has been done regarding what risk factors are related to dementia. Research shows that some people have a greater risk of developing dementia compared to others. One study, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry (2003), found that there may be a possible correlation between height and death from dementia. The meta-analysis, which involved more than 180,000 adults who were followed for about ten years, found that there was a significant increase in risk of dementia associated with each standard deviation decrease in height for both men and women.

Another study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (2008) found that several risk factors are related to Alzheimer’s disease. The analysis of data from more than 3,000 articles showed that genetic factors, pre-existing vascular conditions, lifestyle factors, and certain sociodemographic factors influence one’s risk of developing the disease. These risk factors include:

  • Having a strong family history of dementia
  • High blood pressure (systolic blood pressure of at least 160 mmHg)
  • High cholesterol
  • High total dietary fat intake, but low omega-3 fatty acid intake
  • Low levels of physical activity
  • Lack of daily mental activity
  • Heavy alcohol intake
  • Tobacco smoking
  • Past history of head injury
  • Short periods of education
  • Exposure to environmental toxins

A more recent study published in Neurology (2014) reported that older adults who exhibit motoric cognitive risk syndrome (MCR) have a greater tendency to develop dementia. This pre-dementia condition is characterized by slow gait (pattern of limb movement) and cognitive complaints. The researchers found that people who have MCR were also most likely to be obese, depressed, sedentary, and with a history of stroke or Parkinson’s disease.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • WebMD. Alzheimer's Disease and Other Forms of Dementia. http://www.webmd.com/alzheimers/guide/alzheimers-dementia MedPage Today. Simple Tool May ID Dementia Risk in Seniors. www.medpagetoday.com/PrimaryCare/Geriatrics/48419?
  • NHS. Short height 'linked to dementia death risk'. http://www.nhs.uk/news/2014/11November/Pages/Short-height-linked-to-dementia-death-risk.aspx
  • CMAJ. Diagnosis and treatment of dementia: Risk assessment and primary prevention of Alzheimer disease. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2244657/
  • Johns Hopkins. Online Tool Can Help Seniors Quickly Determine Risk for Dementia. http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/media/releases/online_tool_can_help_seniors_quickly_determine_risk_for_dementia
  • TCRI. The Memory Survey. http://www.alzcast.org/memorysurvey/ChooseAssessment.aspxPhoto courtesy of Vince Alongi by Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/vincealongi/233836385
  • Photo courtesy of BenGrantham by Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/ijammin/4434778643
  • www.webmd.com
  • www.medpagetoday.com
  • www.nhs.uk
  • www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  • www.hopkinsmedicine.org
  • www.alzcast.org

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