The University of Chicago’s Survey on Aging in America asked more than 3,000 people over age 30 their leading concerns about growing older. Top concerns were not having financial security, being in poor health, losing their independence, and—the #1 worry—losing their memory or other mental abilities.
It’s a valid concern. Serious problems with memory, thinking, and reasoning (collectively known as dementia) affect more than 5 million Americans, and that number is expected to jump to 14 million over the next few decades.
Scary as these statistics sound, memory loss is not inevitable. Here are 10 proven interventions for preventing dementia, Alzheimer’s disease (the most common type of dementia), and other causes of cognitive dysfunction.
1. Get Moving
Research shows that regular exercise is one of the most effective steps you can take to ward off Alzheimer's, prevent dementia from progressing, and actually improve cognitive function. In addition to enhancing cardiovascular health and blood flow to the brain—which is particularly important for preventing vascular dementia—exercise increases the expression of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a protein that supports the growth and survival of brain cells.
2. Lower Your Blood Pressure
Multiple studies have linked hypertension with an increased risk of both dementia and mild cognitive dysfunction. Blood pressure control not only protects against vascular dementia and strokes, which have catastrophic effects on the brain, but it also reduces brain shrinkage and white matter lesions that contribute to memory loss and dementia.
3. Control Your Blood Sugar
Dementia and diabetes have so much in common that some researchers refer to Alzheimer's as type 3 diabetes. One shared characteristic is insulin resistance, which interferes with glucose utilization and deprives brain cells of energy. Others include inflammation and oxidative stress, which are also linked with brain damage and cognitive decline. “Reducing the burden of diabetes,” British researchers recently reported, “could result in substantial reductions in the incidence of dementia and disability…”
4. Get a Handle on Your Weight
A team of European researchers analyzed data from 39 studies involving 1.3 million men and women who were followed for up to 38 years. They found clear links between mid-life obesity and development of dementia 20-plus years later—and the higher the body mass index (BMI), the greater the risk. Weight loss also improves hypertension, diabetes, and other conditions that up the odds of developing dementia.
5. Eat Smart
Foods that engender brain health include fish, berries, fruit, olive oil, leafy greens, fiber-rich vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, lean protein, coffee, and green tea. Excess sugar and refined carbohydrates, on the other hand, have detrimental effects. Numerous clinical trials have linked the Mediterranean diet with better cognitive function and lower risk of dementia, and high-fat, low-carbohydrate ketogenic diets have been shown to prevent dementia from progressing.
6. Correct Hearing Loss
Did you know that hearing impairment is associated with worsening cognitive function? And that hearing aids and other interventions may help prevent dementia? Hearing loss can also lead to depression and social isolation, which are additional risk factors for dementia. All the more reason to have your hearing tested and get serious about hearing aids.
7. Stimulate Your Brain
Higher education is associated with a reduced risk of dementia because it increases cognitive reserve: the brain’s resilience and ability to work around neurological damage. You don’t have to go back to college, but we should all challenge ourselves with hobbies, games, reading, learning new skills, etc. Social isolation, loneliness, and depression contribute to cognitive decline as well, emphasizing the importance of staying connected and engaged with others.
8. Get Rejuvenating Sleep
During sleep, your brain not only consolidates memories but also removes toxins that build up during the day. When you don’t get enough quality sleep, your brain takes a hit, so it’s not surprising that poor sleep is linked with cognitive decline. Finding solutions for sleep problems—whether it involves treating sleep apnea or simply taking melatonin—is yet another important step for preventing dementia.
9. Clean Up Your Act
There is some buzz about the brain benefits of alcohol and nicotine. Studies suggest that light-to-moderate drinking (no more than one drink a day for women and two for men) may reduce the risk of dementia—but there is no doubt that heavy alcohol use seriously damages the brain. As for nicotine, it does activate receptors in the brain that may be neuroprotective. However, smoking trashes your cardiovascular system and contributes to vascular dementia. Drink moderately, if at all, and stop smoking!
10. Take Protective Supplements
Antioxidants, B vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients in a daily multivitamin boost your defenses against oxidative stress, inflammation, mitochondrial damage, and other processes that contribute to memory loss and dementia. Although there’s no magic pill for dementia prevention, several supplements including fish oil, curcumin, huperzine A, and low-dose lithium have proven benefits for brain health.
Be Aggressive About Preventing Dementia
Some risk factors are beyond your control. You can’t turn back the clock, alter your genome, or erase your past medical history. But as you can see, there is much you can do to prevent dementia.
Your best chance of sidestepping this devastating condition is to adopt as many of these protective measures as you can—and as early as you can. Be aggressive about preventing dementia!