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13 Health Factors That Can Impact Your Dementia Risk, According to Research

What you eat, the amount you drink, and staying social all play a role in preserving brain health.


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Brain health is one of the most pressing issues facing older Americans today; one in every five adults 65 and older has mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a condition in which people start to “show subtle-but-measurable cognitive decline,” according to the American Psychological Association.

One in seven has been diagnosed with dementia, which can lead to cognitive decline severe enough to impact a person’s ability to perform daily activities, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

And by 2050, the number of Americans with dementia is expected to triple, according to a scientific statement published in the journal Stroke by the American Stroke Association and the American Heart Association (AHA).

But it’s not all bad news. Based on a meta-analysis of years of research, the statement authors revealed that there are 13 steps you can take to improve your overall wellness and preserve your brain health throughout the aging process. Even better, these actions also promote cardiovascular health, reducing the risk of stroke, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes.

What are the risk factors for dementia?

Alzheimer’s disease, which causes issues with memory, thinking, language, and behavior, is the most common form of dementia. To reduce your risk, the statement authors recommend paying close attention to 13 risk factors that impact your risk for cognitive decline.

The first seven factors (dubbed Life’s Simple 7 by the AHA) focus on heart health, while the last six address brain health more specifically—and all of them can be managed with lifestyle changes. Here’s what you can do now to protect your brain in the years to come:

✔️ Manage blood pressure. Hypertension is a known risk factor for vascular dementia, or cognitive impairment caused by impaired blood flow to the brain.

✔️ Control cholesterol. High cholesterol can lead to clogged arteries and stroke, and the scientific brief says it’s associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease later in life.

✔️ Reduce blood sugar. Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes have been linked to MCI that leads to dementia, although it’s not clear if treating diabetes can lower that risk.

✔️ Stay as active as possible. Getting daily physical activity is associated with a lower overall chance of developing dementia and cardiovascular disease.

✔️ Eat a nutrient-rich diet. Balanced eating plans, including the DASH, Mediterranean, and MIND diets, are associated with slower rates of cognitive decline beginning in middle age.

✔️ Lose weight, if necessary. Obesity is one of the most common risk factors of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, according to the research.

✔️ Stop smoking. Smokers have a higher risk of developing dementia, but the study found that quitting decreased that risk almost to non-smoker levels.

✔️ Drink alcohol responsibly. Light and moderate alcohol consumption is slightly protective against MCI, but excessive or long-term use can have the opposite effect.

✔️ Treat sleep disorders. Conditions like insomnia and sleep apnea appear to contribute to cognitive decline, so professional intervention may be necessary.

✔️ Stay social. Social isolation and loneliness have recently been linked to MCI and dementia, although the exact relationship between the two is still unclear.

✔️ Combat hearing loss. Scientists believe sensory deprivation through hearing loss could lead to cognitive decline, and hearing aids might actually improve memory.

✔️ Seek help for depression. Depression later in life is a risk factor for dementia, and vice versa. More research is necessary, but proper treatment may break the association.

✔️ Continue to learn. Education increases cognitive reserve, and the earlier you start, the better. (Access to education also indicates access to better, more expensive care.)

The mind and the body aren’t two separate systems; they’re directly connected, affecting each other in ways that scientists are only beginning to understand.

“Many people think of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and other risk factors as affecting only heart health, yet these very same risk factors affect our brain health,” Ronald M. Lazar, Ph.D., FAHA, one of the statement authors and director of the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine, said in a press release. “Patients might be more likely to pay attention to the importance of addressing modifiable risk factors if they understood the links.”

When should you start focusing on brain health?

It’s important to protect your brain at any age, but young adults and those approaching middle age might have the most to gain from these recommendations. Early attention to each of these risk factors can pay dividends years or decades later.

“Scientists are learning more about how to prevent cognitive decline before changes to the brain have begun,” Lazar said. “Prevention doesn’t start in older age; it exists along the health care continuum from pediatrics to adulthood.”

First, talk to your doctor about any pressing health issues. Then, get started on each of the AHA’s 13 recommendations for preventing MCI and dementia. Even if you’re over 65, it’s still worthwhile to include behaviors in your daily routine that can help manage dementia risk factors—because the best time to start protecting your brain is right now.

Jake Smith, an editorial fellow at Prevention, recently graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in magazine journalism and just started going to the gym. Let's be honest—he's probably scrolling through Twitter right now.

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This post originally appeared on Prevention and was published March 18, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.

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