Dementia Risk Factors and Prevention: My Parent has Dementia – Is it Going to Happen to Me and How Can I Mitigate My Risk?

Those who have parents with dementia know just how deeply the condition can impact lives. Whether your parent is facing dementia from Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia, you may begin to wonder if you’ll one day develop the condition. While having a parent with dementia does increase your risk of developing the condition, it doesn’t guarantee that you will. However, it’s important for you to learn and practice lifestyle habits that can help reduce your risk for dementia. We’ll discuss what you need to know and how to mitigate your risks below.

Genetic Influences on Dementia

Various types of dementia do have genetic risk factors. You may have inherited some of these risk factors from your parent. However, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, less than one percent of Alzheimer’s cases are caused by deterministic genes. These are genes that guarantee you’ll develop the condition. Instead, almost all Alzheimer’s associated genes increase your risk for the condition and, if you proactively take steps to reduce your risk, you can increase the age of onset and lower its severity.

One exception is familial Alzheimer’s disease (FAD). Dementia from this form of Alzheimer’s is more closely connected to genetics. Commonly, it is caused by a mutation of Presenilin 1, though there are other genetic mutations involved. If your parent has FAD, a physician can help you assess your risk and help you monitor it closely.

Whether or not you develop other types of dementia, including vascular dementia, is not determined completely in your genes. Instead, lifestyle and environmental factors are involved.

Other Risk Factors for Dementia

Lifestyle and environmental factors play a major role in determining the risk for dementia. Many of the risk factors for dementia negatively affect your circulatory system, or vascular system, which includes your veins, arteries, heart and lungs. Researchers believe that vascular diseases and poor heart health predispose you to develop dementia. Smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, lack of exercise and poor diet can all contribute to vascular disease. Diabetes, particularly uncontrolled diabetes, may also predispose you to developing dementia.

Additionally, sleep apnea and other sleep problems have also been connected to dementia. Researchers theorize that sleep issues may increase your risk for dementia because they damage the brain by depriving it of rest or oxygen.

Other risk factors are more obviously associated with your brain. For example, suffering a traumatic brain injury, from a blow to the head, increases your risk of developing dementia. Also, not challenging your brain enough may increase your risk. Those who earned graduate degrees have lower rates of dementia. This may be because their jobs require them to challenge themselves more regularly.

The connection between using your brain and keeping it healthy is so strong that those who have dementia may see improvements or protective effects from participating in activities that are mentally stimulating.

How to Reduce Your Risk of Dementia

The older you get, the higher your risk of dementia. However, you can reduce your risk in several ways.

  1. Exercise

Getting regular exercise helps you reduce your risk for dementia by increasing your cardiovascular health. With a healthier heart and body, you’re less likely to develop the conditions that increase your risk for dementia, from vascular conditions to diabetes.

  1. Diet

You can also improve your cardiovascular health and reduce your dementia risk factors with a healthy diet. Research has demonstrated that the Mediterranean diet is the best to promote vascular health. It includes leafy greens, fish, fresh vegetables, nuts, and olive oil.

  1. Mental Stimulation

As we age, we sometimes stop engaging in the mentally stimulating activities we enjoy. Those who have retired may find that, without their job, they need more mentally engaging activities. You have many options, from reading and completing puzzles, to completing online course in subjects you enjoy to continuously stimulate your brain and keep learning.

  1. Reduce Smoking and Drinking

Smoking and drinking are both linked to dementia and a host of other health issues. Doctors do not recommend you smoke at all, however if you can’t quit, even reducing your smoking may be a benefit. Some research has shown that moderate drinking may reduce your risk of dementia, however heavy drinking will increase it. Moderate drinking is defined as a maximum of one drink per day for men and women, or two drinks per day for men under 65. 

  1. Get Proper Treatment for Your Conditions

Untreated diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, and even hearing loss may contribute to your dementia risk. If you suspect you have these conditions, getting them diagnosed can help. Sticking with your treatment plan can reduce your risk of damaging your brain and increasing your risk of dementia.

While your genetic risk for dementia isn’t in your control, there are many lifestyle choices you can make to protect yourself and reduce your risk of dementia. Developing a plan with your doctor can help you target the areas where you’re increasing your risk the most.

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