Background White matter lesions (WMLs) are a common finding in patients with dementia. This study investigates the relationship between WMLs, hyperphosphorylated tau (P-tau) in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and apolipoprotein E (APOE) ε4 genotype in prodromal Alzheimer's disease (AD). Methods Baseline levels of tau, P-tau and β-amyloid 1-42 in CSF, the presence of WMLs in the brain, and the APOE genotype were ascertained in 159 patients with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and 38 cognitively healthy controls. Results After 5.7 years, 58 patients had developed AD. In this group, patients with normal levels of CSF P-tau had higher levels of WMLs in the parietal regions than those with pathological P-tau levels (p < 0.05). Also, patients without APOE ε4 alleles had more WMLs in the parietal lobes than those with at least one allele (p < 0.05). MCI patients with pathological P-tau levels and parietal WMLs showed a greater risk of developing AD than those with just one of the two pathological parameters. Conclusions We suggest that WMLs in parietal lobes and tau pathology likely have independent but synergistic effects on the reduction of the cognitive reserve capacity of the brain. In patients with a more low-grade AD pathology, WMLs in the parietal lobes might increase the risk of developing dementia.