12 Common Risk Factors for Alzheimer's and Dementia

Part Four of a 7 Part Series on Keeping Your Mind Healthy as you Age

If you knew a train was coming, would you get out of the way?. Shutterstock

This is part 4 of a 7 part series on keeping your mind healthy as you age.

If you knew a train was going to hit you, would you get out of the way?  Two women were in the news because they were trapped on an 80-foot high railroad bridge in Indiana with a freight train barreling towards them and no way out!  Ultimately, the women survived by lying down flat in the middle of the tracks, but WHAT were they doing on an active railroad bridge with no way out?


The story reminds me of how blind most people are to the health of their brains.  If you knew brain problems were coming for you, would you start making better decisions today to get out of the way?

New research shows that you can decrease your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia by 60% or more and those same strategies will help your mood, focus, and memory.

The four steps I discussed in the three previous articles are of this series are:

  1. We each need to have brain envy – to fall in love with our brains.
  2. All of us need baseline brain health assessments.
  3. We need to optimize our important health numbers, not just normalize them. 
  4. We need to help our brains in multiple ways.

Plus, it has to be iterative; you can never stop … because aging never stops. 

Leslie was 54 years old when she first came to see me.  She was always worried about her mother who had Alzheimer’s disease and always on guard to protect her mother from wandering off.

  Leslie became depressed and developed sleeping and memory problems from the chronic stress.

One of Leslie’s first questions to me was, “Dr. Amen, what can I do to decrease my chances of getting Alzheimer’s. I never want my kids going through this stress.”

The best way to decrease your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia is to eliminate all of the risk factors that are associated with them—and the good news is that most of them are either preventable or treatable!


And, if you have depression or dementia in your family, you want to start prevention as early as possible.  You want to start NOW.

Here are some of the most common risk factors:

Obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease all increase your risk for both depression and dementia.  You have to take your physical health seriously, because it totally affects your brain.

Low estrogen, testosterone and thyroid levels increase your risk of both dementia and depression.  We seem to be programmed to die after our children are raised to save on the earth’s resources, which may be why our hormone levels drop significantly in our 50s.  I don’t know about you, but I am NOT OK with that. I was just getting started when I turned 50. I love the wisdom of age, but I need my body and brain to be healthy so I can feel vibrant.  You need to know your hormone levels and optimize them.

Smoking and drug and alcohol abuse increase your risk, so if these are a problem for you, stopping IMMEDIATELY decreases these risk factors.

  In my office I usually have orchids because I love how amazing they are.  I often ask my patients, “If the orchids become damaged by being exposed to toxins in the soil, how do we bring them back to health?”  First, you have to STOP the TOXINS, and then give them the highest quality nutrients possible.  Your brain is the same way.    

Another significant risk factor is sleep apnea, where you snore loudly, stop breathing at night, and are chronically tired during the day. This triples your risk of dementia and depression and makes it really hard to lose weight.  On the SPECT scans we use at Amen Clinics we often see that the brains of people with sleep apnea look like the brains of those who have early Alzheimer’s disease. Knowing if you have sleep apnea and getting it treated is critical to keeping your brain healthy. 

Insomnia can also hurt your brain. In fascinating new research, scientists have shown that your brain actually cleans or washes itself during sleep.  The brain has a special waste management system that helps get rid of toxins that build up during the day, including the plaques thought to be responsible for Alzheimer’s disease.  During the day your brain is so busy managing your life that this cleaning system is pretty much turned off.  Without healthy sleep, the cleaning crew does not have enough time to do its job and trash builds up, causing brain fog and memory problems.  How would your home look if no one cleaned for a month?  That is the effect chronic insomnia can have on your brain. 

When you do not sleep, blood flow to your brain goes down and you are much more likely to make bad decisions.  Focus on getting 7 or 8 hours of sleep every night.

In the next article, we will discuss more risk factors, and what you can do about them to stay happy and cognitively sharp for as long as possible.

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