Dementia risk factors

Family history

Close relatives of a person with dementia may be worried that they will be more likely to develop the condition. While people with a family history of Alzheimer’s disease are generally considered to be at greater risk of developing the disease, a risk cannot be determined on family history alone. In fact, many people with a family history of Alzheimer’s never develop the disease.

If people are trying to protect themselves against Alzheimer’s disease, looking after the body is probably more helpful than looking after the brain.

Professor Clive Ballard, Director of Research at the Alzheimer’s Society talking on BBC video, Top tips to cheat dementia

Dementia-causing diseases that may be hereditary include Huntingdon’s disease and Niemann-Pick Type C disease. Scientists have discovered that some genes can affect the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. One – apolipoprotein E – plays a role in the development of Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.

Medical history

Medical conditions – particularly multiple sclerosis, HIV, Down’s syndrome and Huntingdon’s disease – can increase the risk of developing dementia. Heart and high blood pressure problems or a stroke can heighten the risk of developing vascular dementia. Diabetes, obesity and severe head injuries can also increase the chances of developing dementia in later life.

Lifestyle choices

We all have a wide range of choices about how we live our lives. Those choices can affect our general health and wellbeing. While there is no conclusive evidence that we can prevent the development of dementia, there is a general acknowledgement that there are some areas where poor lifestyle choices may increase the risk of developing dementia (that is, a poor diet, smoking, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, lack of exercise, and not keeping your brain active and stimulated through maintaining hobbies, interests and social interaction).

What can care workers do?

Care workers can play a positive role in helping to reduce the risk by encouraging the people they support to do a range of things.

Eat a healthy, balanced diet: You can suggest healthy options when supporting people in shopping or when preparing meals. Try to make food as appealing as possible and don’t overload the plate. Variety and providing food on a ‘little and often’ basis is usually better. Helping the person to have regular drinks is very important too – soups, smoothies, jellies and other liquid foods are all good as well as standard drinks. For more on this, see the section on ‘Eating well’.

Give up smoking: This can be hard, particularly if the person has been smoking for a long time. As a care worker, you can encourage and support the person by providing leaflets and information (available from most medical centres or pharmacists) and by checking whether there are any local support services to help people stop smoking.

Reduce alcohol consumption: Care workers can play a role in encouraging people to drink sensibly and avoid over-consumption of alcohol. Alcohol is a mind-altering substance that can affect people’s ability to carry out everyday tasks. Brain cells can be damaged by alcohol, making this a risk factor for dementia.

Exercise regularly: Care workers can encourage exercise in a number of ways, for example by taking a person out for walks, helping them in the garden or encouraging them to keep active in the house by carrying out regular household jobs.

Maintain hobbies and social activities: Care workers can play an active role in encouraging people to continue hobbies (such as gardening, reading, walking) and social activities (for example, accompanying them on shopping trips and in attending local clubs and events). Within the home, care workers can encourage people to help with preparing meals (and preparing a table for meals) and by stimulating conversation. Maintaining hobbies and pastimes and daily life skills can help prevent isolation.

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