Modifiable psychosocial risk factors and delayed onset of dementia in older populations: analysis of two prospective US cohorts

BMJ Open. 2022 Apr 4;12(4):e059317. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2021-059317.


Objective: Preventing Alzheimer's dementia (AD) fundamentally equates to delaying onset. Thus, we quantified associations of modifiable, psychosocial risk factors to years of delayed onset of dementia.

Design: Two prospective cohorts (n=2860) with negative and positive psychosocial factors measured at baseline (depressive symptoms, neuroticism, cognitive activity).

Setting and participants: Religious Orders Study of older priests, nuns and brothers across the USA, initiated in 1994; Rush Memory and Aging Project, of older persons in Chicago area, initiated in 1997.

Outcome measure: We conducted annual neurological and neuropsychological assessments to identify AD (n=785 incident cases). We compared age at diagnosis of AD across psychosocial risk factor groups, controlling for confounders, using accelerated failure time models.

Results: We found strong relations of three or more depressive symptoms with age at AD diagnosis; estimated mean age at diagnosis was 86.9 years with significant symptoms versus 92.1 years with no symptoms (p=0.001). In addition, neuroticism was inversely related to age at AD diagnosis; estimated mean age at diagnosis was 88.8 years for the highest neuroticism tertile and 93.1 years in the lowest tertile (p<0.001). Participants with higher cognitive activity (such as reading books) had later AD diagnosis; estimated mean age at diagnosis was 89.2 years for the lowest cognitive activity group and 92.6 years for the highest activity group (p<0.001).

Conclusions: Higher depressive symptoms were associated with 5-year acceleration in AD; higher neuroticism with 4-year acceleration and higher cognitive activity with a 3.5-year delay. To translate findings, prior health services research in the USA indicates delaying dementia 5 years could add 3 years of life and reduce individual costs of care >$60 000. These results provide a rigorous, easily translatable metric for communicating and evaluating the potential public health impact of psychosocial and experiential interventions.

Keywords: dementia; epidemiology; public health.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / psychology
  • Alzheimer Disease* / psychology
  • Cognition Disorders* / diagnosis
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Prospective Studies
  • Risk Factors