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8 Tips for Reducing the Risk of Developing Dementia

Alzheimer's disease word cloud

June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month

“Genetics is not your destiny when it comes to later-onset Alzheimer’s, as genetics accounts for a small percentage of the risk. But you can influence and reduce risk by making good lifestyle choices,” according to Dr. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Longevity Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior and the Parlow-Solomon Professor on Aging at the David Geffen School of Medicine.

Dr. Small is familiar to many for his books such as The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program and Two Weeks to a Younger Brain, books that translate the latest brain science into practical strategies for improving cognitive health and decreasing the risk of developing Alzheimer’s or a related dementia.

While the evidence isn’t definitive, there’s enough of it to demonstrate that the following practices benefit us all as we age, and can likely help lower our chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease or related dementias, or at a minimum, delay the onset or progression of dementia. Just one or two lifestyle tweaks can yield big dividends in our overall health, especially brain health, as we age.

  1. Physical activity—if you were to do just one thing, let it be regular exercise. And this doesn’t have to be anything fancy or too vigorous. Daily walking is one of the most effective and lasting choices you can make. What’s good for the heart is good for the brain, and exercise will work your heart muscle and oxygenate your brain.
  2. Quit smoking—as a former smoker (29 years smoke-free), I know how difficult it is to quit. But the benefits of quitting are overwhelming. According to one large study, you double your odds of developing dementia if you smoke a lot in middle age, and other studies demonstrate similar connections. Find a smoking cessation program, I can’t encourage that enough. And when you stop smoking, you feel better, and food tastes better, which will help you enjoy the next tip.
  3. Brain food—nutrition contributes to brain health in marvelous ways. The Mediterranean diet is often cited as one of the best for brain and heart health. And what a great time of year to adopt this eating program: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seafood, nuts, olive oil, and limiting consumption of red meat and fats. Check out a local farmers market for great deals on fresh, local produce and fish, especially salmon.
  4. Stay socially engaged—loneliness and isolation can have the equivalent impact of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And social engagement can easily contribute to intellectual engagement. For ideas on how to build a broader social network, click here to read my colleague Jullie’s article—The Secret to Aging Well—on this subject from January’s AgeWise King County.
  5. Keep mentally engaged—be a lifelong learner. New learning builds new neural pathways. Now’s the time to learn a new language, how to salsa dance or how to play the piano. Reading, puzzles, watching Jeopardy!, it all counts. And variety is the spice of making this work to its best advantage. Check out your local library, community or senior center to see what classes are available. Stay curious.
  6. Stay positive—and reduce stress. There is something to that song Don’t Worry, Be Happy and the attitude it encourages. A positive attitude contributes to cognitive health. Many of the suggestions above can contribute to a positive attitude as well. Find what works for you and keep doing it! Mindfulness meditation is growing in popularity, is a relatively easy practice to learn, and it can help address both chronic stress and attitude.
  7. Manage diabetes and hypertension—both are tied to dementia. If you don’t have high blood pressure or diabetes, practice good health habits to keep them at bay. If you do have either condition, follow your doctor’s orders to manage and improve your health.
  8. Give your body a rest—adequate, consistent sleep is restorative, healing, and necessary to supporting brain health. Sleep is the brain’s way of cleaning house.

Take the time to invest in yourself. Pick just one of the eight habits that you would like to change to start investing in better brain health and lowering your odds of developing Alzheimer’s or a related dementia. In an interview with O, The Oprah Magazine, Small shared: “According to our data, if everyone in the United States adopted one additional healthy lifestyle habit, the number of expected Alzheimer’s cases would be reduced by a million in the next five years.”

It’s never too late to start. And while evidence of the long-range impact of these lifestyle changes is not yet definitive, as Dr. Small puts it, “I don’t want to wait 10 years just to find out I should have been doing these things all along.”

Looks like I need to find time to take a walk today!

Contributor Keri Pollock directs marketing and communications for Aging Wisdom, an Aging Life Care™ practice (geriatric care management) serving King and south Snohomish Counties; serves on the Elderwise board of directors, and co-chairs the UW Elder Friendly Futures Conference.