How to help lower your chance of dementia 

When you think about growing older and what your future self might be like, a top concern for many people is losing mental sharpness. The idea that you could be coping with memory loss or dementia can feel overwhelming. But it can also be motivating.

While it’s not possible to avoid all health conditions that may contribute to cognitive issues, there are proactive steps you can take that may reduce your chance of dementia.

What is dementia?

Dementia is a general term for the loss of cognitive function. It covers a range of medical conditions, including the most well-known types such as Alzheimer’s disease, which accounts for 60% to 70% percent of cases.1

“What dementia is, at its core, is brain failure,” says Camille Sinclair, Ph.D., a clinical and health psychologist in Denver and founder of the Confident Caregiver Academy, a training course for dementia caregivers. “It’s damage to the brain resulting in significant functional losses. That means you may lose your ability to perform everyday tasks and your ability to think and reason.” And it’s natural to be afraid of that.

What causes dementia?

Dementia is caused by injury or diseases that impact the brain (either directly or indirectly), over time damaging brain cells.1 There is a genetic component for some types of dementia: Someone with a first-degree relative with Alzheimer’s may be more likely to develop it than someone who doesn’t have any family history.2 But vascular dementia — which accounts for 5% to 10% of cases3 — isn’t genetic. It’s caused by strokes or blockages in the heart or brain, so there are lifestyle components that people can change to help lower their risk.4

Who develops dementia?

Dementia is more common in people 65 or older, and the likelihood of developing it increases with age. Gender is a factor, too: nearly two-thirds of people living with Alzheimer’s disease are women.5 High blood pressure, physical inactivity, smoking and overuse of alcohol also lead to an increased chance.6

What are the symptoms of dementia?

Signs can vary depending on the type, but some symptoms may include:7

  • Short-term memory loss
  • Difficulty understanding and expressing thoughts
  • Getting lost in familiar places
  • Repeating questions
  • Loss of interest in normal activities
  • Confusion about time or place

In the early stages, people with dementia may still have good social skills and may be able manage demands at work, Sinclair explains. But they may start to notice mood swings or that they are forgetting familiar things. “We’re all going to have momentary lapses as we age, but when your loved one is getting lost in their neighborhood, that’s a sign that something is going on.”

To properly diagnose any type of dementia, a full medical assessment is required. It may include a physical exam, laboratory tests, a review of medical and family history, cognitive tests, brain scans, a psychiatric evaluation and genetic tests.

How is dementia treated?

There are medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that can help manage symptoms of dementia, and others that can help slow the progression of the disease depending on the type of dementia. But there is no cure.8

Steps can be taken to promote overall well-being and maintain quality of life. Studies have shown that physical activity can slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia, especially when accompanied by cognitive stimulation.9

Can you prevent dementia?

Some risk factors for dementia are unavoidable, such as genetics and age. But you can take steps today that may help lessen your chances of developing the disease in the future:

  • Stay physically active. Exercising is one of the top ways to help prevent certain types of dementia. One study found that older adults who walked around 10,000 steps a day were 50% less likely to develop dementia.10
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet. Heart and brain health are connected, and a higher risk of cardiovascular disease is often associated with a higher risk of dementia. Focus on eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, lean meats, nuts and healthy fats. Try to limit your intake of saturated fats, red meat and sugar.
  • Engage your brain. Because the brain changes with age, keeping your brain active may help stimulate it.11 Ideas to keep your mind sharp: read, play board games, learn a new skill, volunteer, try a different hobby and continue to meet people.
  • Focus on quality sleep. In one study it was found that adults who got less than 6 hours of sleep or more than 9 were at greater risk of developing dementia.12 Target 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night.
  • Connect with family and friends. Social isolation, depression and loneliness are linked to a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease,13 so it’s important to maintain connections with those close to you as you age. “Your mindset about your illness can impact your quality of life,” Sinclair says. “And how caregivers think about their loved one’s illness also impacts quality of life.”
  • Cut out smoking and heavy alcohol use. These behaviors have also been linked to increased vascular dementia.3

Although you can’t control every factor that leads to developing dementia, it’s important to do what you can now, at any age, to help lower your risk. With smart lifestyle choices, your overall health and cognitive future may look a lot brighter.

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