16 Habits You Never Knew Were Aging Your Brain
From the walk you skipped this morning to the snacks you'll have before bedtime, your daily choices may have a big impact on your risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Here are the top ways you're speeding the decline of your mind.
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The ever-maturing mind
There’s no getting around the fact that normal aging brings brain changes that slow cognitive function. Some brain regions shrink, communication between neurons may decrease, blood flow in the brain may lessen, and inflammation could increase, says the National Institute on Aging (NIA). But certain daily habits may accelerate this brain aging—and there are things you can do about that.
While researchers haven’t confirmed a specific “prescription” for ideal cognitive health, says Marie A. Bernard, MD, deputy director of the NIA, a growing body of research—including a 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine—suggests practices that are healthy in general may also be beneficial for cognition. “In other words, physical activity, managing the risk factors for cardiovascular disease (i.e., high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking), getting sufficient sleep, are all good for other health reasons and may be helpful for the brain,” explains Dr. Bernard. “Additional practices such as staying socially active, treating depression, and avoiding excessive alcohol consumption may also be beneficial.” (Don’t miss the 12 signs your brain is aging faster than you are.)
You’re sitting too much
Sitting too much is linked to changes in a section of the brain that is critical for memory, according to a study published in PLoS One. Staying sedentary for large chunks of time was linked to thinning of the medial temporal lobe, an area of the brain that helps with memory, critical thinking, and information processing, the researchers found. They also discovered that physical activity, even at high levels, wasn’t enough to offset the harmful effects of sitting for extended periods. Bottom line? You need to move more, more often to stop aging in your brain.
You’re not keeping a journal
Reading and writing are two of the best things you can do to keep your brain healthy and active—and writing in a daily journal does both. People who reported being journal writers during their lifetimes had a 53 percent reduction in all-cause dementia risk, according to a study published in The Journals of Gerontology. The benefit comes both from the physical act of writing, which engages the brain, and from the repeated practice of recalling, organizing, and retelling memories, they said.
You’re not protecting your hearing
Hearing loss is linked to dementia and brain aging. Senior citizens with hearing loss were significantly more likely to develop dementia, with hearing impairment associated with a 30 to 40 percent rate of accelerated cognitive decline, according to research published in Aging Mental Health. It’s possible that the strain of struggling to hear could overburden the brain or that hearing loss could lead to social isolation, which is a risk factor for dementia.
You drink too much
Drinking any amount of alcohol can result in some level of cognitive impairment, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Exactly how much drinking affects your brain varies from person to person but when it comes to brain health, there’s a difference between enjoying the occasional glass of wine with dinner and partying on a Saturday night. Binge-drinking (which may be less than you think) decreases neurogenesis—the making of adult brain cells— by as much as 40 percent, according to a study published in Neuroscience. Make sure you keep your brain young with these genius habits.
You’re not caring for your heart
Common sense says heart health is directly connected to brain health. “We know what’s good for your heart is good for your brain,” says James A. Hendrix, PhD, director of Global Science Initiatives at the Alzheimer’s Association. “If your heart is stressed and strained and your brain is not getting proper blood flow, it’s going to age more rapidly.” Indeed, a 2017 study in JAMA Neurology contributed to the body of research reaffirming this link. It found that middle-aged people with vascular risk factors—like hypertension or diabetes—were more likely to develop dementia as they got older.
You don’t wear a helmet while cycling or skiing
Research finds that the severity of a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and the age at which it’s sustained can impact dementia risk down the road. A 2018 study in The Lancet Psychiatry found that people with a history of TBI had a 24 percent greater dementia risk than people without those injuries. “What surprised us was that even a single mild TBI was associated with a significantly higher risk of dementia,” said lead author Jesse Fann, MD, MPH, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine. The study also found that if you sustain a brain injury in your 20s, your risk of having dementia in your 50s jumps by about 60 percent. Fann said he hoped the findings would prompt people with a history of TBI to adopt brain-health habits, such as getting more exercise and using less tobacco and alcohol.
You prefer the couch to the gym
Sitting is a risk factor for dementia. But even if stand every hour or so, you still need to add exercise if you want to protect your aging brain. In a 2018 study in the journal Neurology, for example, researchers tested women’s fitness by studying their performance on stationary bikes. Women with “high cardiovascular fitness” had a dementia risk that was 88 percent lower than a “moderately fit” group of women. In addition, the study found that dementia symptoms began 11 years later in the “high fitness” group over the “medium fitness” group. (Avoid these other 22 habits that are making you age faster.)
You veg out in front of the TV
When it comes to saving your brain, your mental muscle could benefit from regular workouts, as well. A 2017 study by the Alzheimer’s Association reported that older adults who had undergone a computer-based cognitive training program called “speed of processing” reduced their risk of dementia by 29 percent. “There is some promising research that has shown that cognitive training in specific realms—for example, processing information or memory—slows down cognitive decline for at least a couple of years after the training,” says Dr. Bernard. “However, it is not clear how this translates into currently available brain games. Importantly, there is not sufficient evidence that brain games can prevent cognitive decline or conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.” Still, challenging your mind—such as reading and doing crossword or Sudoku puzzles—couldn’t hurt and might, in fact, help.
You don’t like learning new things
People with higher levels of education have lower rates of dementia. “One of the best predictors of who is protected against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia as they age is how much education they have,” says Dr. Hendrix. “As you learn things you develop new connections and this gives you more resilience. It’s like you’ve put more money in your retirement account, and as you retire and your brain starts to slow down you can draw on that.” (This deceptively simple measure of strength and flexibility can predict if you will have a long life.)
You put off taking steps to protect your mind
Between high school sports and educational choices, young people have plenty of opportunities to protect themselves against dementia decades later. “Brain health is a life course,” Dr. Hendrix says. “It’s not something to think about only because you just turned 65 and you’re retiring. That’s why we need to support education, so our children and grandchildren are set up with that resilience so when they become seniors their brains are better protected.”
You let old friendships and family connections slide away
Just like shopping for shoes or jogging around the neighborhood, keeping your mind sharp and engaged is easier when you involve friends, according to a study published in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society. Researchers assigned senior citizens a score based on their level of social activity—from visiting family members to attending sporting events. The researchers found that each one-point increase in their social activity score corresponded to a 47 percent decrease in their rate of cognitive decline. Socializing is a major way to relieve stress and decrease loneliness, both of which can take a toll on brain aging.
You don’t practice relaxing
The toll stress takes on the brain is frightening. Among people already diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), those also experiencing anxiety had a higher risk of quicker cognitive decline, according to a study published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. In fact, researchers found that the chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease increased by 33 percent among people with mild anxiety, by 78 percent for people with moderate anxiety, and by 135 percent for people with severe anxiety. (This is why you’ll age better than your parents.)
You regularly sleep less than seven hours a night
If you’re an older adult, the less sleep you get, the faster your brain ages, according to a meta-analysis published in Sleep Medicine. Using brain scans, neuropsychological assessments, and records of sleep duration, researchers found that those who slept fewer hours showed both physical impairments in their brains as well as a decline in cognitive performance. Too much sleep can hurt your brain as well. The sweet spot? Seven hours a day seems to work best for most adults, they found.
You eat crummy food
As far as your brain is concerned, you definitely are what you eat and the healthier your diet, the better your cognitive functioning, according to a study published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association. The MIND diet reduced the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by as much as 53 percent in people who followed the diet “rigorously,” and by approximately 35 percent in people who adhered to it “moderately well.” The MIND diet calls for eating at least three servings of salad and another vegetable every day. It promotes these 10 foods for brain health: green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, fish, poultry, healthy fats like olive oil, and wine (in moderation). And one of those foods deserves a special shout-out: blueberries. Researchers found they provided more protection to the brain than other foods in the study.
If you want to do everything possible to prevent Alzheimer’s disease and stop your aging brain, put out the cigarettes forever. Smoking nearly doubles your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, according to a meta-analysis published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association. Need help? Try these 22 ways to quit smoking for good.
You live near a major highway
Highways cause high levels of pollution, which research says can be bad news for our brains. A 2015 study in the journal Stroke looked at people who lived near major roadways and concluded that exposure to the “fine particulate matter” in air pollution, was associated with structural changes in the brain that are indicators of cognitive impairment and other types of brain damage. The closer you live to a busy road and the longer you’re exposed to pollution, the higher your risk. Now, get out there and start doing these healthy habits that will keep your mind sharp.
- National Institute on Aging: “How the Aging Brain Affects Thinking”
- Marie A. Bernard, MD, deputy director of the NIA
- National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine: “Preventing Cognitive Decline and Dementia: A Way Forward.”
- PLoS One: “Sedentary behavior associated with reduced medial temporal lobe thickness in middle-aged and older adults”
- The Journals of Gerontology: “Personal Journal Keeping and Linguistic Complexity Predict Late-Life Dementia Risk: The Cache County Journal Pilot Study”
- Aging Mental Health: “Hearing Loss and Dementia – Who’s Listening?”
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: “Alcohol’s damaging effects on the brain”
- Neuroscience: “Moderate drinking? Alcohol consumption significantly decreases neurogenesis in the adult hippocampus”
- James A. Hendrix, PhD, director of Global Science Initiatives at the Alzheimer's Association
- JAMA Neurology: “Associations Between Midlife Vascular Risk Factors and 25-Year Incident Dementia in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Cohort”
- The Lancet Psychiatry: “Traumatic brain injury and dementia”
- Jesse Fann, MD, MPH, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine
- Neurology: “Midlife cardiovascular fitness and dementia: A 44-year longitudinal population study in women”
- Alzheimer’s & Dementia: “Speed of processing training results in lower risk of dementia”
- Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society: “Late-Life Social Activity and Cognitive Decline in Old Age”
- American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry: “Anxiety symptoms in amnestic mild cognitive impairment are associated with medial temporal atrophy and predict conversion to Alzheimer's disease”
- Sleep Medicine: “Self-reported sleep duration and cognitive performance in older adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis.”
- Alzheimer's & Dementia: “MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer's disease.”
- Alzheimer’s & Dementia: “Smoking and increased Alzheimer’s disease risk: A review of potential mechanisms”
- Stroke: “Long-Term Exposure to Fine Particulate Matter, Residential Proximity to Major Roads and Measures of Brain Structure”