Background: Studies examining risk factors for dementia have typically focused on testing a priori hypotheses within specific risk factor domains, leaving unanswered the question of what risk factors across broad and diverse research fields may be most important to predicting dementia. We examined the relative importance of 65 sociodemographic, early-life, economic, health and behavioral, social, and genetic risk factors across the life course in predicting incident dementia and how these rankings may vary across racial/ethnic (non-Hispanic white and black) and gender (men and women) groups.
Methods and findings: We conducted a prospective analysis of dementia and its association with 65 risk factors in a sample of 7,908 adults aged 51 years and older from the nationally representative US-based Health and Retirement Study. We used traditional survival analysis methods (Fine and Gray models) and a data-driven approach (random survival forests for competing risks) which allowed us to account for the semi-competing risk of death with up to 14 years of follow-up. Overall, the top five predictors across all groups were lower education, loneliness, lower wealth and income, and lower self-reported health. However, we observed variation in the leading predictors of dementia across racial/ethnic and gender groups such that at most four risk factors were consistently observed in the top ten predictors across the four demographic strata (non-Hispanic white men, non-Hispanic white women, non-Hispanic black men, non-Hispanic black women).
Conclusions: We identified leading risk factors across racial/ethnic and gender groups that predict incident dementia over a 14-year period among a nationally representative sample of US aged 51 years and older. Our ranked lists may be useful for guiding future observational and quasi-experimental research that investigates understudied domains of risk and emphasizes life course economic and health conditions as well as disparities therein.