14 Everyday Habits Can Seriously Increase Your Dementia Risk
Scientists have identified things that can be changed or modified to reduce the risk of cognitive decline or dementia.
Dementia risk factors you could control
Reducing your risk of dementia starts with your everyday habits. Although some dementia risk factors can’t be changed, such as your age and family history, you do have the option to break these bad habits that increase your risk.
Consuming a diet high in saturated fats
You already know a nutritional, well-balanced diet is essential to your heart and weight. But food’s benefits for the mind 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. A review of research published in the journal Neurobiology of Aging found that a link between saturated fat intake and a higher risk of cognitive issues—including 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 opt for other lean protein sources including chicken and fish.
Eating too much sugar
The list of reasons why you should lower your sugar intake continue to mount, with one of the newest ones being that a diet high in sugar may trigger dementia. Researchers from the University of Bath and King’s College London tested the brain samples of 30 individuals with and without Alzheimer’s disease for glycation, or the condition of having sugar molecules in one’s system. They found that those with Alzheimer’s disease were more likely to have issues with a vital enzyme called MIF as a result of glycation, according to their research published in 2017 in Scientific Reports. This meant they were able, for the first time, to link high blood sugar with Alzheimer’s disease.
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 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 contain—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 of memory loss that lead to confusion, known as Wernicke-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—and overall well-being—as the flavonoids in red wine are linked to a lowered risk of dementia in older people. These common medications could raise your risk of dementia.
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.
Living a sedentary lifestyle
Research has found a link between Alzheimer’s disease and inactivity, according to Aging and Disease. “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. Check out all the ways exercise can save your brain.
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 of dementia. “Research suggests that keeping the brain active seems to increase its vitality and may build its reserves of brain cells and connections,” says Heather Snyder, PhD, senior director of medical and scientific operations for the Alzheimer’s Association. 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,” Snyder suggests. Find out which brain exercises improve memory best.
Being a loner
Research published in The Journals of Gerontology in 2018 found an association between loneliness and social isolation and a higher risk of dementia. “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.
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 research published in 2016 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. If you have these types of dreams, you’re 80 percent more likely to get dementia.
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 in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia, the researchers found that sleeping more than eight hours a night increased the 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.
Lacking a sense of purpose or meaning in life
Having a strong sense of purpose—for example, a reason to get up in the morning, knowing that people are depending upon you, feeling that you are making important contributions and possibly even making a difference in this world—could contribute to healthy aging, explains Scott Kaiser, MD, Chief Innovation Officer and practicing geriatrician at MPTF. “Many scientific studies clearly support this notion and demonstrate the value of having a strong sense of purpose in our older age in promoting many domains of good health and well-being—including our brain health and in reducing our risk of Alzheimer’s disease,” he says.
Neglecting to give back
While volunteering is not the only pathway to purposeful living—people also find meaning and purpose at work, through family relationships, and a variety of social activities—Dr. Kaiser notes that research on volunteerism clearly demonstrates its rich benefits and its powerful role as a valuable ingredient for healthy aging. “Older volunteers in a 2013 study experienced a reduced risk of hypertension, delayed physical disability, enhanced cognition, and lower mortality,” he explains. “While the mechanisms of these correlations were not clear, researchers identified the physical activity, cognitive engagement, and social interaction aspects of volunteerism as contributing factors.” Bonus: While you’re helping others, you’re also helping yourself! If you can’t recognize these five scents, you’re at risk for dementia.
Having a bad attitude towards aging
Aging is not easy, and it’s tempting to fall into the trap of “giving up,” whether that’s on life ambitions, fitness goals, or hopes to travel. But Dr. Kaiser points out that how we think about aging has a significant impact on our risk for cognitive conditions such as dementia. “The ground-breaking work of Becca Levy, a Yale Professor of Psychology and leading researcher in the fields of social gerontology and psychology of aging, has established clear links between one’s perceptions of aging—the stereotypes people attribute to getting old—and the actual trajectory of their own health as they age,” he says. “With this, we see that having a positive view of aging is associated with both living longer and living better.” In fact, in one of Levy’s studies, participants who had positive self-perceptions of aging had 7.5 years greater longevity and fended off Alzheimer’s disease better than low scorers.
Taking antihistamines too often
Research published in JAMA Internal Medicine linked long-term antihistamine use (Benadryl, Zyrtec or other brands created for the treatment of allergies) to an increased risk for dementia. “Antihistamines offset what dementia medication is trying to do—which is increase the amount of acetylcholine in your system,” explains Philip Stieg, MD, head of the Weill Cornell Medicine Brain and Spine Center and chief of neurosurgery at NY/Presbyterian. “If you take over-the-counter drugs frequently, ask your doctor, pharmacist, or nutritionist about alternative treatments such as adding apples and Vitamin C to your diet.” Next up, make sure you avoid these 9 everyday habits that seriously up your dementia risk.
- Howard Fillit, MD, founding executive director and chief scientist of the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation (ADDF) and the ADDF's Cognitive Vitality Program
- Scientific Reports: "Macrophage Migration Inhibitory Factor is subjected to glucose modification and oxidation in Alzheimer’s Disease"
- Clifford Segil, DO, neurologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California
- Heather Snyder, PhD, senior director of medical and scientific operations for the Alzheimer's Association
- Alzheimer's & Dementia: "Sleep duration, cognitive decline, and dementia risk in older women"
- Scott Kaiser, MD, Chief Innovation Officer and practicing geriatrician at MPTF
- Psychology and Aging: "A culture-brain link: Negative age stereotypes predict Alzheimer's disease biomarkers."
- JAMA Internal Medicine: "Cumulative Use of Strong Anticholinergic Medications and Incident Dementia"
- Philip Stieg, MD, head of the Weill Cornell Medicine Brain and Spine Center and chief of neurosurgery at NY/Presbyterian
- Neurobiology of Aging: "Saturated and trans fats and dementia: a systematic review"
- The Journals of Gerontology: "Loneliness and Risk of Dementia"
- Aging and Disease: "Physical Activity and Alzheimer’s Disease: A Narrative Review"