Preventing Dementia and Alzheimer’s: 8 Habits to Reduce Your Risk

More than 6 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s disease — and even more are impacted. Alzheimer’s, a progressive, degenerative disorder that attacks the brain’s nerve cells, is an irreversible condition that takes a toll on patients, caregivers, health care providers and loved ones. It is a leading cause of death among older adults, and about one in three seniors die from Alzheimer’s or another dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Discover key habits that can help reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

[READ: New Treatments for Alzheimer’s Disease.]

Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia by the Numbers

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, which refers to a group of diseases that impact a person’s cognitive abilities, memory, thinking and behavior. The number of people living with Alzheimer’s has risen in recent years and is expected to keep rising. By 2060, the Alzheimer’s Association predicts that nearly 14 million Americans will be living with Alzheimer’s dementia.

The number of people who die from Alzheimer’s has also risen. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the Alzheimer’s annual death rate has more than doubled from 2000 to 2019; and present day, according to 2019 Medicare claims, about one in three Medicare beneficiaries who die in a given year had an Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia diagnosis. In the Alzheimer’s Association’s report, “deaths from Alzheimer’s disease” refers to what is officially reported on death certificates.

For people who have a new Alzheimer’s diagnosis, life expectancy can range from a few years to two decades — with the average life expectancy of about four to eight years, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

While Alzheimer’s and dementia are increasingly common, they are not a normal part of the aging process, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s important to talk to your doctor about your potential risk level and bring up any concerns you have with your own or a loved one’s memory as you age.

[Related:Signs It’s Time for Memory Care]

How Do You Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease?

Unfortunately, scientists have not yet discovered a cure for Alzheimer’s, nor do they know exactly how it starts. Research suggests that a combination of age-related changes in the brain and genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors contribute to risks of development, though these vary per individual.

Likewise, experts haven’t discovered a foolproof method of how to prevent Alzheimer’s and dementia, either. Still, there are ways to reduce risks. Notably, the CDC says that growing evidence suggests that practicing certain healthy habits may reduce Alzheimer’s risks.

“Most of the risk of Alzheimer’s disease seems to be determined by genetic make-up and factors that are yet to be determined,” says Dr. S. Ahmad Sajjadi, a neurologist at UCI Health and associate professor of neurology at UCI School of Medicine in Orange County, California. “In terms of dementia as an all encompassing state of cognition though, the story is different in that lifestyle factors, appropriate control of medical conditions, adequate sleep and control of depression and anxiety seem to be effective especially in dealing with vascular causes of cognitive impairment and dementia.”

[READ: Eating for Your Brain as a Senior.]

Preventing Dementia and Alzheimer’s: 8 Habits to Reduce Your Risk

Some healthy habits to incorporate to help reduce your risks of Alzheimer’s and dementia include:

— Engage in mentally stimulating activities.

— Treat or manage metabolic conditions.

— Eat a healthy diet.

— Be physically active.

— Maintain social connections.

— Prioritize quality sleep.

— Manage stress.

— Quit smoking and reduce alcohol intake.

1. Engage in mentally stimulating activities

One of the hallmark symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia is memory loss, and this can start out as mild symptoms. Mentally stimulating activities may help you strengthen your memory to prevent this loss from occurring.

Keeping your brain, memory and cognitive function as sharp as possible could mitigate your risk of contracting Alzheimer’s, says Charles J. Fuschillo Jr., president and chief executive officer of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America in New York City. “You have to be proactive about your brain health.”

Some mentally challenging activities you can incorporate in your day-to-day include:

— Crossword puzzles.

— Sudoku.

— Brushing your teeth with your opposite hand.

— Reading a book.

— Reading the newspaper.

— Studying a new language.

— Learning a new skill, like sewing or painting.

— Playing an instrument.

For more clarity on your mental state, you can ask your primary care doctor for a memory test as part of your annual physical, Fuschillo says. A memory test typically consists of answering questions, lasts about 10 to 15 minutes and can be administered by doctors, physician assistants, psychologists, social workers, nurses, pharmacists and other health professionals, he adds. The health professional administering the screening will review the results with you and may suggest a follow-up with a physician for more testing.

For people looking for affordable screening options, the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America offers free, confidential memory screenings Monday through Fridays on secure videoconference technology. Appointments are needed to book a screening.

2. Treat or manage metabolic conditions

Research has shown that metabolic conditions, like diabetes, obesity, hypertension and hyperlipidemia, especially if co-occurring as a group — may contribute to risks of Alzheimer’s. Managing these conditions can not only help your current health but could have future benefits too.

“A growing body of research has implicated a strong link between metabolic disorders and impaired nerve signaling in the brain,” explains Dr. Verna Porter, a board-certified neurologist and director of the Programs for Dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease and Neurocognitive Disorders at Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, California.

To help prevent Alzheimer’s disease risks that may ensue from metabolic conditions, she encourages focusing on healthy nutrition to reduce inflammation in the brain, which in turn helps to protect the brain.

3. Eat a healthy diet

Eating a healthy diet can protect your cognitive health and may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Porter recommends using the MIND diet, which she says is “associated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.”

The MIND diet is a combination of the DASH diet, which stands for the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, and the Mediterranean diet. It has 15 dietary components, including 10 “brain-healthy food groups,” Porter explains.

Some foods to prioritize on the MIND diet include:

— Vegetables, especially leafy greens.

Nuts.

— Berries, such as blueberries and strawberries.

— Beans.

Whole grains.

Fish.

— Poultry.

— Olive oil.

— Resveratrol, which is a supplement derived from red wine.

Eating a healthy diet may also help you reach or maintain a healthy weight, which may likewise help reduce risks of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

4. Be physically active

Regular physical activity could reduce your Alzheimer’s risk by as much as 50%, according to the Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation.

“Exercise may slow existing cognitive deterioration by stabilizing older brain connections, or synapses, and help make new connections possible,” Porter says. “The idea is to increase physical activity through a combination of aerobic exercise and strength training.”

She encourages people to aim for a half hour to 45 minutes of exercise four to five days a week. She suggests aerobic exercises like cycling, walking and swimming and balance training exercises like yoga, tai chi or practice with balance balls to aid in Alzheimer’s and dementia prevention.

5. Maintain social connections

Social engagements may help protect against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in later life, Porter says.

As such, she adds that maintaining strong relationships with family and friends and regularly participating in face-to-face interactions with others can be crucial. Some ways to do this include:

— Joining a volunteer organization.

— Joining a club or social group.

— Taking a group class, like a group workout class or a community college course.

— Going to public spaces like the movies, the park, museums, libraries or other spaces.

6. Prioritize quality sleep

Some studies link poor sleep to higher levels of beta-amyloid depositions in the brain, which are pathological hallmarks of Alzheimer’s. Other studies have found that good sleep may help clear out beta-amyloid.

Beta-amyloid is “essentially a sticky ‘brain-clogging protein’ that in turn interferes with brain function and with sleep — especially with the deep REM sleep necessary for memory formation,” Porter says.

She adds that “people with Alzheimer’s disease often suffer from insomnia and other sleep-related disturbances.”

“Poor sleep may also lead to slowed thinking and may also cause reduced or poor mood,” Porter says.

7. Manage stress

Constantly dealing with stressors can negatively impact your health — and may increase your risk for Alzheimer’s.

Porter explains that “chronic or persistent stress can actually lead to nerve cell decline and even death, which may manifest as atrophy, or shrinkage in size, of important memory areas in the brain.”

She recommends people engage in relaxation techniques to manage stressors and diminish the damaging effects stress may have on the brain. Some of these include:

— Breathing exercises.

— Prayer.

Meditation.

Yoga.

— Reflection.

— Religious practices.

8. Quit smoking and reduce alcohol intake

Eliminating or reducing your use of substances can reduce your risks of developing dementias. According to the CDC, quitting smoking may reduce your risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s by helping you maintain brain health and cutting down your risks for conditions like heart disease, cancer and lung disease.

When to Consider a Memory Care Facility

While healthy habits may help reduce your risks or developing Alzheimer’s, they are not guaranteed prevention — nor can they cure an already existing case of dementia.

In some situations, memory loss from Alzheimer’s or dementia can be severe enough to impact you or your loved one’s safety. Depending on circumstances, you or your loved one could benefit from a memory care unit, a facility that helps people living with dementia when they cannot safely go about their day-to-day life.

Some signs that a loved one could benefit from a memory care unit include:

— Changes in your loved one’s behavior.

— They display confusion and disorientation that imperils physical safety.

— They are declining in physical health.

— They are experiencing incontinence.

— They send failed or confusing electronic and phone communications.

— Caregiving is a family hardship.

More from U.S. News

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Preventing Dementia and Alzheimer’s: 8 Habits to Reduce Your Risk originally appeared on usnews.com

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