Aging occurs as a series of small steps, first causing cellular damage and then affecting tissues and organs. This is also true in the brain. Frailty, a state of increased risk due to accelerated deficit accumulation, is robustly a risk factor for cognitive impairment. Community-based autopsy studies show that frail individuals have brains that show multiple deficits without necessarily demonstrating cognitive impairment. These facts cast a new light on the growing number of risk factors for cognitive impairment, suggesting that, on a population basis, most health deficits can be associated with late-life cognitive impairment. The systems mechanism by which things that are bad for the body are likely to be bad for the brain can be understood like this: the burden of health deficits anywhere indicates impaired ability to withstand or repair endogenous and environmental damage. This in turn makes additional damage more likely. If true, this suggests that a life course approach to preventing cognitive impairment is desirable. Furthermore, conducting studies in highly selected, younger, healthier individuals to provide 'proof of concept' information is now common. This strategy might exclude the very circumstances that are required for disease expression in the people in whom dementia chiefly occurs (that is, older adults who are often in poor health).