What puts people at risk of dementia?


Expert reviewer Professor Graham Stokes, Bupa Global Director of Dementia Care
Next review due September 2020

Dementia is a set of symptoms rather than a single condition. It’s caused by different health conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. These are often called types of dementia.

We don’t always know exactly what causes people to get dementia in a broader sense, but there are some known risk factors. These can include your age and having certain other health conditions, such as high blood pressure or diabetes.

The risk factors vary for different types of dementia. Some you can’t do anything about, such as your age, ethnic background and whether you are male or female. But there are others that you can, and making certain healthy changes to your lifestyle may help to reduce your risk of dementia.

Senior man and daughter are looking at pictures

Lifestyle

There are several lifestyle risk factors linked to increased risk of dementia or mental decline (cognitive impairment). These don’t increase the risk of all types of dementia, but they are linked to the two most common types:

Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. People with Alzheimer’s disease often have some vascular dementia as well.

It may help to reduce your risk of developing dementia if you:

  • eat a healthy diet
  • keep physically active
  • keep a healthy body weight and avoid becoming overweight
  • stop smoking

You’ll find more information about each of these areas, and tips about how to make changes, in our page on reducing your risk of dementia.

Unavoidable risk factors

Age

Age is the biggest risk factor for dementia by far. Apart from frontotemporal dementia, all the main types of dementia get more common with age. Frontotemporal dementia is most common among people in their 60s, but less so for people who are older.

Gender

Overall, there are more women with dementia than men. This is mainly because women tend to live longer than men, so there are more women living at older ages, when dementia is more likely.

Researchers are still exploring whether there are other reasons for this difference between men and women. Some studies have suggested that there may be biological and social reasons why women could face a greater risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Other studies suggest that, for any given age, men are just as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease as women.

Vascular dementia is the only type of dementia that is more common in men than women.

Ethnic background

Some types of dementia are more common in people of particular ethnic backgrounds. Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia are more common in black populations than white. Vascular dementia is also more common in Asian people than white people.

We don’t know exactly why this is, but it may be related to this risk of having other health conditions. Blood vessel diseases in the brain (such as stroke) are more common in South Asian and black populations in the UK. These diseases can increase the risk of dementia.

Other health conditions

There are some other diseases and health conditions that are linked to dementia. These include:


A well-researched report by Alzheimer International has suggested that avoiding diabetes and high blood pressure (as well as stopping smoking) are particularly important when it comes to reducing dementia risk.

These are some other health conditions that have been linked to dementia:

  • Parkinson’s disease: people with Parkinson’s disease can develop symptoms of dementia or slowing down mentally. The condition is similar to dementia with Lewy bodies.
  • Normal pressure hydrocephalus: people develop symptoms of higher than normal pressure in the brain, but when it is measured, the pressure is not abnormally high. If the condition is not treated, they may slow down mentally, find it difficult to concentrate and have memory problems.
  • Multiple sclerosis: the rapidly developing form of multiple sclerosis is also linked to dementia. People may develop memory problems and have difficulty taking in new information or learning new skills.
  • Down’s syndrome: people with Down’s syndrome have a higher than average risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

For more information about medical conditions linked to dementia, see our information on Rarer causes of dementia.

Is dementia hereditary?

Mostly, dementia does not run in families. But there are situations where it can.

Alzheimer’s disease

If you have a parent, brother or sister with Alzheimer’s disease, you have a slightly increased risk of developing it yourself. There are also gene faults that can run in families and lead to early onset Alzheimer’s disease. But these only make up around one in 20 cases. Most cases of Alzheimer’s disease do not run in families.

Vascular dementia

Although ‘Is vascular dementia hereditary?’ is a common question, vascular dementia does not seem to run in families.

Dementia with Lewy bodies

There have been some gene faults found in families with cases of dementia with Lewy bodies. But, as with Alzheimer’s disease, most cases are not linked to a family history.

Frontotemporal dementia

The strongest genetic link is for frontotemporal dementia. There can be gene faults on two different genes that can cause frontotemporal dementia. These gene faults are dominant, which means you only need to inherit the fault from one parent to be at risk of developing dementia.


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  • Reviewed by Graham Pembrey, Lead Health Editor, Bupa Health Content Team, September 2017
    Expert reviewer Professor Graham Stokes, Bupa Global Director of Dementia Care
    Next review due September 2020



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