Environmental Risk Factors for Dementia

By Rick Naurert PhD
May 1st, 2022
Medically reviewed by Paul Sietes, MD.
Environmental Risk Factors for Dementia

Although people around the world are living longer, quality of life is becoming a concern as dementia rates are also on the rise. Dementia is defined as a loss of mental ability severe enough to interfere with normal activities of daily living, and normally attributed to a graduate death of brain cells.

The public health concern has lead Scottish researchers to develop a list of environmental factors that may contribute to the risk of developing dementia.

The list is noteworthy as almost 47 million people live with dementia worldwide. Currently the disease has no cure with future projections of more than 131 million living with the disease by 2050.

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.

The team say that future research should focus on their short list, 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.

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.

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.

Estimates indicate worldwide dementia care costs exceed 600 billion annually.

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.

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

The research appears in the journal BMC Geriatrics.

Dr. Tom Russ, of the Alzheimer Scotland Dementia Research Centre at the University of Edinburgh, commented,  “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.

“We found that the evidence is particularly strong for air pollution and vitamin D deficiency. But 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.”

Jim Pearson, director of policy and researcher at Alzheimer Scotland, confirms that the study substantially improves knowledge and understanding of environmental factors which may increase the risk of developing dementia and provides a basis for further, and more focused, research in this area.

“Dementia is a global public health priority. There are 90,000 people living with dementia in Scotland and the number is on the rise. We need much more research into the causes of dementia, treatments and supports that allow people to live well with dementia as well as the prevention and cure of dementia.”

Source: University of Edinburgh

Dr. Rick Naurert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Naurert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.