Risk factors for MCI 

The number one risk factor for any form of cognitive impairment or dementia is age. Until we find a fountain of youth, there is little we can do to control aging. Another uncontrollable risk factor is genetics. A specific gene, APOE-e4, has been linked to Alzheimer's disease (AD). Having the APOE-e4 gene indicates that you are at increased risk for AD or cognitive decline but, thankfully, it doesn't guarantee that you'll get the disease or the impairment.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the controllable risk factors for cognitive impairment in adults are quite similar to those for cognitive impairment in infants, although the expression of the effects may be different. Things to consider in adulthood include:

  • Diabetes – Both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes increase the risk for cognitive decline. This is primarily due to the effect of the disease on the blood vessels to the brain.1
  • Smoking – Smoking, particularly smoking heavily, is linked to increased cognitive decline in middle age and more severe decline in later years.2
  • Alcohol – The impact of alcohol on cognitive decline depends on how much a person drinks. Moderate alcohol consumption is linked to a lower risk while heavy drinking is associated with higher risk. If you smoke and drink, you definitely need to reconsider those habits: A recent study demonstrated that the combination of heavy smoking and heavy alcohol consumption has a bigger impact than either factor on its own.3
  • Depression – Cognitive impairment has been linked to depression but it is not known whether or not depression itself is the cause or some other underlying issue.4
  • High blood pressure (hypertension) – Individuals with hypertension have been shown to perform poorly compared to individuals with normal blood pressure in various measures of cognitive function, including learning and memory, attention, abstract reasoning, and perceptual land psychomotor abilities. This is due to several factors. For example, people with high blood pressure tend to have reduced blood flow to specific parts of the brain. Hypertension can also cause structural damage to the blood vessels in the brain, which could allow toxic substances to cross what is known as the blood-brain barrier, or cause “mini-strokes.”5
  • Lack of physical exercise – When it comes to physical activity, it is probably more useful to describe the benefits that physical activity has on cognitive health versus the negative consequences of being sedentary. Physical activity has been shown to maintain blood flow to the brain and may improve the brain’s aerobic capacity and nutrient supply. Physical activity also is believed to maintain neurons and their ability to communicate with one another. It may also reduce the risk of other conditions and diseases, like high blood pressure, that impair cognitive functioning.6
  • Infrequent participation in mentally or socially stimulating activities – As with physical activity, most studies on mental and social activities and cognitive function have looked at the positive effects of those who do participate in those activities rather than those who don’t. However, in one study of 700 elderly adults, cognitively inactive people were 2.6 times more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease than cognitively active people. In addition, frequent cognitive activity during old age — such as reading a newspaper, going to see a play, or playing chess or checkers — was linked with a reduced incidence of mild cognitive impairment. 7

Learn what you can do to enhance brain health during development or aging by visiting our Healthy Brain Guide ».


1 J Alzheimers Dis. Jan 1, 2012; 30(0): S185–S198.
2 Am J Public Health. 2003;93(6) 
3 Br J Psychiatry. 2013 Aug;203(2):120-5
4 Psychiatria Danubina, 2012; Vol. 24, Suppl. 1, pp 179–182 
5 Psychologicalscience.org
6 National Institute on Aging
7 Neurology. 2007 Nov 13;69(20):1911-20