9 Everyday Habits That Seriously Up Your Dementia Risk

Updated: May 29, 2018

The biggest dementia risk factors—age and family history—can't be changed, but scientists have identified others that can be changed or modified to reduce risk of cognitive decline or dementia.

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Eating a poor diet

You already know a nutritional, well-balanced diet is essential to your heart and weight. But food’s benefits for the brain are sometimes overlooked. “The brain needs healthy fats, lean proteins, vitamins and minerals to function properly,” says Howard Fillit, MD, founding executive director and chief scientist of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation (ADDF) and the ADDF’s Cognitive Vitality Program. Also, research shows that people who have a diet high in saturated fats are more likely to develop dementia. The best nutrition you can give your brain is a diet full of fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains. Replace butter with healthy fats, such as olive oil, and limit your intake of red meat, instead opting for other lean protein sources including chicken and fish. Here are some of the treatable causes of dementia.


Ignoring chronic illness

Untreated hypertension and diabetes are two of the greatest risk factors for dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease, explains Dr. Fillit. “Diabetics have up to 73 percent increased risk of dementia and a an even higher risk of developing vascular dementia than non-diabetics,” he says. “Having hypertension in middle age also increases the risk of both Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.” For both diseases, managing them with medication, diet and exercise can lower dementia risk significantly. To manage—or ideally, avoid—chronic illness, be sure to keep up with your doctor’s appointments. “Patients who visit doctors are less likely to get dementia, as high blood pressure, diabetes and hypertension all can be modified when they’re under a physician’s surveillance,” says Clifford Segil, DO, neurologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.


Drinking alcohol in excess

Hitting the bottle too hard can increase your risk for many health issues, including high blood pressure, stroke, liver disease, in addition to dementia. “Drinking too much can make people’s brains atrophy or get pickled, causing early onset memory loss,” says Dr. Segil. “Multiple studies have shown a correlation between prolonged alcohol use and cognitive complaints.” In addition, years of drinking alcohol can cause rare forms or memory loss that lead to confusion, known as Wenicke-Korsakoff syndrome. It is safe for your health to drink in moderation—one drink a day for women and two for men. In fact, doing so (especially red wine) may be good for your brain health, as the flavonoids in red wine are linked to a lowered risk of dementia in older people.



Cigarettes and cigarette smoke contain more than 4,700 chemical compounds, including some that are highly toxic, says Dr. Fillit. In addition, studies have shown that people who smoke are at higher risk of developing all types of dementia, and a much higher risk (up to 79 percent) for Alzheimer’s disease, specifically. The good news is that former smokers have a much lower dementia risk than current smokers, so the sooner you quit the better. Don’t miss these differences between Alzheimer’s and dementia you may not know.

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Living a sedentary lifestyle

More than a million cases of Alzheimer’s disease in the United States can been attributed to a lack of exercise, and yet nearly one-third of Americans remain physically inactive. “Strong research shows that exercise benefits the brain and can reduce your risk of falls, age-related diseases and even death,” says Dr. Fillit. When exercise is pumping oxygen and blood to your heart and muscles, your brain is benefitting too. The World Health Organization recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity (or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity) aerobic exercise every week, which equates to working out 30 minutes a day around five times a week.


Lack of mental stimulation

Just as it’s important to exercise your body, it’s equally important to exercise your mind. Spending too much time glued to your couch, passively cycling through your Netflix queue instead of actively engaging your brain may increase your risk for dementia. “Research suggests that keeping the brain active seems to increase its vitality and may build its reserves of brain cells and connections,” Heather Snyder, senior director of medical and scientific operations for the Alzheimer’s Association, says. Tapping these benefits is easy, too: “Complete a jigsaw or crossword puzzle, play games which require strategic thinking like chess or bridge or take a class online or at your local community college,” Synder suggests. Find out the 36 daily habits that can reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s.

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Being a loner

Last year, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital published a study finding an association between feeling of loneliness and social isolation and build up of beta-amyloid—a protein in the brain linked to Alzheimer’s. “This corresponds to earlier research that lonely people had double the risk of Alzheimer’s than their more social peers,” says Dr. Fillit. Even if you’re more of an introvert and enjoy your alone time, try to put more effort into pursuing social activities, for example joining a book club, volunteering at an animal shelter or participating in community sports. Here’s what people with Alzheimer’s wish you knew.


Not getting enough sleep

Dr. Fillit points to research linking sleep problems—such as insomnia and sleep apnea—with an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease. “In addition, a recent study estimates that 15 percent of Alzheimer’s disease cases may be attributable to sleep problems.” Other recent research published in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia involving nearly 7,500 women found that averaging less than six hours a night of sleep raised risk of dementia by 36 percent. To lower your risk, Dr. Fillit suggests establishing a bedtime routine, maintaining a regular sleep schedule and treating sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea. It’s also a good idea not to exercise or eat within two to three hours before bedtime, as both can impair sleep.

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Getting too much sleep

It’s natural for sleep patterns to change as you age. For example, parents caring for a newborn baby might average three to four hours, while a 60-something who recently retired might be able to manage nine a night. In the same study of 7,500 women, the researchers found that sleeping more than eight hours a night increased risk of dementia by 35 percent. Using certain types of sleep aids to get enough sleep may also be a problem: “I often see patients with insomnia or other sleeping problems resolving their issues with medications,” says Dr. Segil. “One type of sleeping pill often used is Benadryl, which is an antihistamine. These medications decrease the same chemicals in the brain that one family of Alzheimer’s medications is designed to increase.” Talk with your doctor and make sure if you’re going to take sleeping pills other behavioral things have been tried like improving your sleep hygiene. Next, don;t miss the 15 things neurologists do to prevent Alzheimer’s disease.