This site is intended for health professionals only

Read the latest issue online
Airbrushed out and ignored

Poverty is linked to increased dementia risk, regardless of genetics

Poverty is linked to increased dementia risk, regardless of genetics

People living in poverty are at an increased risk of developing dementia compared to people of higher economic status,  regardless of genetics, according to a new study led by the University of Exeter.

Researchers found that low socioeconomic conditions, at both individual and community levels, contributed to the risk of developing dementia. An increased risk was particularly associated with people living in very disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

The findings, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, point to the importance of environmental influences on brain health.

Multiple pathways, including genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors, determine the risk of dementia. According to the researchers, identifying the potential interaction effects is crucial because they may point to risk factors and population groups that can be targeted with dementia risk reduction interventions.

The researchers analysed data from 196,368 UK Biobank participants who were over 60 years of age and did not have a dementia diagnosis between 2006-2010 (the study’s baseline) to assess who was genetically at risk of developing the disease.

Hospital and death records were examined to determine dementia cases, with all analyses conducted in 2021. The records were then compared against methods of assessing socioeconomic status, which was measured in two ways; firstly, on an individual basis and secondly, on an area level.

The data showed both an individual’s socioeconomic conditions and area-level conditions contributed to the risk of dementia. Participants with a moderate or high genetic risk were at a significantly higher risk of developing dementia if they lived in a deprived area.

Brain imagining data was available for some participants, and the researchers found that the participants living in poverty had more damage to never fibres called white matter – a type of tissue enabling communication between different areas of the brain. The same patterns were seen for both socioeconomic measures.

Dr Janice Ranson, from the University of Exeter medical school, said: ‘In the midst of a cost of living crisis, our findings that people living in poverty are at particular risk for developing dementia is critically important. Of course, avoiding dementia would be one of many advantages of lifting people out of poverty, however sadly that’s not a very realistic goal for many. What we can do is ensure that emerging new dementia prevention services target this particularly vulnerable group.’

The researchers highlighted the importance of the conditions in which people live, work and age for their risk of developing dementia.

Professor David Llewellyn, also from the University of Exeter medical school, added: ‘The link between poverty and dementia risk highlights the importance of environmental influences on brain health. It is cause for optimism that the potential benefits of risk reduction interventions are not limited to those with a low genetic risk. Understanding the link between poverty and dementia is therefore critical to developing effective strategies and policies to prevent this devastating condition.’


See how our symptom tool can help you make better sense of patient presentations
Click here to search a symptom