Can You Ward Off Dementia?
Dementia is a gradual decline in thinking skills and memory. The risk of dementia increases with age, but memory loss is not an inevitable part of aging. Researchers continue to study dementia and hope to one day understand why some people develop dementia and others do not.
At present, there’s no surefire way to prevent dementia. However, it is possible to decrease your risk. According to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, we can decrease our risk of dementia by up to 30% by modifying our behavior. Adopting healthier lifestyle habits may allow us to preserve our mental functioning well into old age.
Some risk factors for dementia are fixed. You can’t stop the passage of time and you can’t change your genetic makeup. To date, there’s no way to alter genetic mutations that increase the risk of dementia.
However, other known risk factors for dementia include smoking and alcohol use—two factors that are well within your control. Health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, increase the risk of dementia as well, so it may be possible to decrease your risk of dementia by improving your overall health and preventing or controlling obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
Smoking and tobacco use have long been associated with dementia. Newer research questions this link. A 2019 study that followed more than 500 adults over a period of years did not find a causal link between smoking and dementia. Additional research is needed to untangle the relationship between smoking, tobacco use (and vaping) and dementia, but if you seriously want to reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, you may want to stop smoking.
Heavy drinking over a period of years is also linked to an increased risk of dementia. Restricting your use of alcohol may improve your brain health and prevent dementia. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), men should drink no more than two alcoholic beverages per day; women, no more than one.
Some evidence has linked moderate alcohol use to a decreased risk of dementia, but it’s not clear if this decreased risk is due to alcohol intake or other factors. Non-drinkers should not begin consuming alcohol in an effort to prevent dementia.
Following the Mediterranean diet—a diet built around fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seafood, and unsaturated fats—may decrease your risk of dementia. The MIND diet, a version of the Mediterranean diet that limits red meat, cheese, and fried foods, may also help keep the brain healthy.
There is no concrete evidence that specific foods are beneficial for brain health, memory, or cognition. Aim for a well-balanced diet that includes plenty of leafy greens, berries, nuts, whole grains, and small amounts of lean meat.
Do not rely on vitamins or nutritional supplements. According to the National Institute on Aging, “there is no vitamin or supplement that is recommended for preventing Alzheimer’s or cognitive decline. Although widely available...many of these have not been tested for their effect on thinking.”
Regular physical activity can decrease your risk of dementia, according to the World Health Organization and multiple research studies. Exercise improves blood and oxygen delivery to the brain and helps stave off many of the health conditions that increase the risk of dementia, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.
The Alzheimer’s Society recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise, such as riding a bike or walking briskly, each week. Check with your doctor for guidance on the types of exercise that are recommended for you.
If you have diabetes or high blood pressure, you may be able to decrease your risk of dementia by keeping your blood sugar level and blood pressure within recommended limits. Similarly, there’s some evidence that hearing loss and untreated depression may increase the risk of dementia, so seeking medical help for those two conditions may also decrease your odds of developing dementia.
Healthy lifestyle habits go a long way toward preventing dementia. Your healthcare provider can help you develop a personalized dementia prevention plan.