Many people worry about developing dementia, particularly if they have a relative with the condition.
Research has highlighted some important factors that affect our risk of developing different types of dementia. Some of the risk factors we cannot control, such as our age, other factors we can influence, such as our lifestyle.
A person who has some of the risk factors present in their life will not necessarily go on to develop the condition. Equally a person who avoids risk factors is not guaranteed that they will not develop the condition, although it does make it less likely.
The most important thing is not to worry alone, if you have concerns talk to your doctor or call the Alzheimer National Helpline.
Risk factors associated with dementia include:
Age is the most significant risk factor for developing dementia. Dementia can occur at any age, but is rare in people under 60 and becomes more common as we age. Dementia affects one person in 70 aged 65 to 70 years and this rises to one person in 5 over 80 years.
While it is known that age is a risk factor, developing dementia is not an inevitable part of ageing. Many people do not develop dementia at any age.
The role of genetics in the development of dementia is not yet fully understood. There has been some progress in this area and certain genes have been identified as playing a part in the development of different types of dementia.
A gene called apolipoprotein E (ApoE) has been linked to Alzheimer's and vascular dementia, however the role it plays is not yet fully understood. People with this gene have not developed dementia and people who do not have it, have developed the condition. Even where this gene is present, there is only a slightly increased risk in developing the condition than the average population.
There are some rare forms of dementia that can be passed from generation to generation. It is important to know that these genetic factors only cause the condition in a very small number of families. One such form is Familial Alzheimer's. This very rare form of dementia affects younger people and can result in people in their 30's and 40's developing the condition. Where Familial Alzheimer's is present, there is a 50% possibility of passing on the gene to the next generation who would then eventually develop the condition. It is important to remember that early onset Alzheimer's - that is where the condition develops in people under 65 - is rare and not all of these cases are thought to be inherited.
Some forms of frontal-temporal dementia or Picks condition have a strong family history and in some cases a genetic link has been found. These inherited types of dementia are rare.
If you have a family history of these rare types of dementia you can talk to your doctor about genetic counselling and if it is appropriate for you. Genetic counselling is a process which will help to determine if your family history suggests genetic testing is an option to be considered and if it is right for you.
Specific medical conditions can increase a person's chances of developing dementia. These include Huntington's disease, Down's syndrome and HIV.
A person's risk of developing vascular dementia is affected by mid life high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol levels, stroke diabetes and heart problems.
There is mounting evidence that our lifestyle can impact our chances of developing dementia.
Thankfully we can make changes to our lifestyle and so reduce our risk. The areas that can impact our risk of developing dementia also impact our risk of developing many types of illness. These include:
Diet and nutrition - a poor, high fat diet contributes to a high body weight, heart disease, high blood pressure and a poor cholesterol levels - all risk factors in developing dementia.
Smoking - has an extremely harmful effect on the heart, lungs and vascular system. Smoking is a significant risk factor in developing a range of illnesses including dementia. You will always benefit from giving up smoking.
Alcohol - excessive alcohol over a long period of time can increase a person's risk of developing a form of dementia called Korsakoff's syndrome. However, there is some research that suggests a moderate amount of red wine ( which contains antioxidants) might help to reduce our risk of dementia.
Lack of Physical Activity - can lead to problems with body weight and to problems with our hearts and vascular system – these problems can in turn increase our risk of developing vascular dementia.