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Dementia study lists everyday risk factors

Experts have created a shortlist of environmental factors that may contribute to our risk of developing dementia.

The list includes exposure to air pollution and a lack of vitamin D but researchers caution that the evidence is not yet sufficient to draw solid conclusions.

Moderate evidence

The team say that future research should focus on their shortlist, which points to the factors that show at least moderate evidence of a link. 

Dementia is known to be associated with lifestyle factors such as high blood pressure in mid-life, smoking, diabetes, obesity, depression and low educational attainment, as well as genetic factors.

Unexplained risk

These risk factors however, leave around a third of dementia risk unexplained. Researchers led by the University of Edinburgh sought to determine whether other issues are at play, including the environment in which we live.

The team from the University’s Alzheimer Scotland Dementia Research Centre reviewed dozens of previous studies that have considered environmental risk factors linked to dementia.

Environmental exposure

They found that a lack of vitamin D – produced by the body through exposure to sunlight – and exposure to air pollution were implicated, along with occupational exposure to some types of pesticide.

Excessive levels of minerals found in drinking water may be linked to the disease, the research suggested, but the evidence was mixed.

We really need more research to find out whether these factors are actually causing dementia and how, and if so, what we can do to prevent this.

Dr Tom RussAlzheimer Scotland Dementia Research Centre, University of Edinburgh

Public health crisis

Dementia is a major global public health crisis that is expected to grow as people live longer. Almost 47 million people live with dementia worldwide and this is predicted to increase to more than 131 million by 2050.

Estimates indicate the disease costs the UK more than £26 billion annually and worldwide dementia care costs exceed the market value of Google or Apple each year.

Preventable cases

There is a growing consensus among doctors that a significant proportion of cases could be prevented or delayed by addressing environmental factors linked to the disease.

Our ultimate goal is to prevent or delay the onset of dementia. Environmental risk factors are an important new area to consider here, particularly since we might be able to do something about them.

Dr Tom RussAlzheimer Scotland Dementia Research Centre, University of Edinburgh,

Future studies

The team behind the latest research says future studies should focus on the short list of environmental risk factors flagged up in their study.

The research, published in the journal BMC Geriatrics, was funded by Alzheimer Scotland and Dr Russ was supported by Alzheimer Scotland through the Marjorie MacBeath fellowship.  

The research study substantially improves our knowledge and understanding of environmental factors which may increase the risk of developing dementia and provides a basis for further, and more focussed, research in this area.

Jim PearsonDirector of Policy and Researcher, Alzheimer Scotland

Related links

Journal article

Alzheimer Scotland Dementia Research Centre

Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences

Edinburgh Medical School