If you’re worried about deteriorating mental faculties as you age, you’re not alone. According to a study by the Alzheimer’s Society, over half of participants feared a dementia diagnosis, with 62 percent believing it means “life is over.” Their worries are understandable, considering your risk of dementia doubles every five years as you age. That means approximately one-third of people over 90 will develop the condition.
“The greatest known risk factor for Alzheimer’s and other dementias is increasing age. Most individuals with the disease are 65 and older,” says Monica Moreno, Senior Director of Care and Support at the Alzheimer’s Association. The good news, however, is you can take action to lower your risk of this debilitating condition. “Research is beginning to reveal clues about other risk factors we may be able to influence through general lifestyle and wellness choices and effective management of other health conditions,” Moreno says.
Read on for her top tips on how to reduce your dementia risk—plus, ways you can boost your brain health and cognitive function.
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Removing red meat, added sugars, and ultra-processed foods from your diet while eating an efficiently whole foods plant-based (WFPB) diet can protect brain health and reduce dementia risk, reports the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). According to the National Institute on Aging, one diet in particular—the MIND diet—shows promising evidence for protection against dementia. The MIND diet focuses on plant-based foods in their whole form, which means eating plenty of leafy green vegetables and other veggies, fruits, berries, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and fish.
“Eating a healthy diet is linked to cognitive performance. For example, diets emphasizing whole grains, green leafy vegetables, fish, and berries are linked to better cognitive functioning and may also help reduce the risk of heart disease,” says Moreno.
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Several studies examining the effects of aerobic exercise on middle-aged or older adults have found significant improvements in cognition, memory, and rates of dementia, according to a 2021 narrative review published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
Aerobic activities such as walking, swimming, cycling, jogging, or using an elliptical machine elevate your heart rate and increase blood flow, which pumps more oxygen and vital nutrients to your brain. This boosts brain health and function by increasing the production of molecules essential for cognitive function and memory.
“Cardiovascular health and dementia are connected, so many of the same things that are good for protecting your heart may also protect your brain,” Moreno explains. “For example, regular cardiovascular exercise helps increase blood flow to the body and brain, and there’s strong evidence that regular physical activity is linked to better memory and thinking.”
Everyone knows smoking is one of the worst things you can do for your health. But you might be surprised to learn that the risk of all-cause dementia jumps by a staggering 34 percent for every 20 cigarettes smoked per day, according to a 2015 study published in PLOS One. Smoking cigarettes is bad for your brain because the harmful chemicals in them destroy your brain’s gray matter — the thin outer layer of your brain (also called the cerebral cortex).
Smoking also damages your heart by increasing plaque formation in your blood vessels and skyrocketing your heart disease risk, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports. This weakens your heart, making it less effective at pumping blood to your brain, which spikes your dementia risk and speeds up cognitive decline.
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Likely the most underrated activity you can do for your brain health is to stay engaged in social and leisure activities. A 2021 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease investigated cognitive and social activities’ role in dementia risk. Looking at more than 8,000 participants aged 50 and older, researchers found that intellectual leisure activities and social engagement can reduce dementia risk in older adults. What’s more, a previous study found that having a wide variety of hobbies can have protective effects against dementia, with a 14 percent decrease in dementia risk among those who engaged in a higher number of hobbies and social activities.