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Preventing Dementia: These Habits Can Help Reduce Risk

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For the past few weeks here on the Blog, we’ve featured articles about dementia and cognitive decline. We looked at cases of the sudden onset of dementia and how it can upend retirement plans. We also talked about the dangers of ignoring Mild Cognitive Impairment. But what about preventing dementia? What’s the latest thinking from researchers about reducing our risk in the first place?

Because there’s no hotter health topic among seniors than dementia and cognitive decline, we were immediately drawn to this recent article from US News in which reporter Claire Wolters updates us regarding the art and science of maintaining health brain function. We also examined a few other sources and once again asked Rajiv for his views. The US News article has been abbreviated somewhat for length.

Preventing Dementia: There’s No “Silver Bullet”

Here at the Blog, we’ve read enough articles by now to understand that there’s no one answer – no “silver bullet” – to keeping the brain healthy. Multiple factors seem to work together, and the outcomes vary from one person to the next.

This quote from a scientific article published in 2023 by Frontiers in Public Health seeks to explain this fact.

“Multiple factors affect the brain’s health,” says the report, “such as age-related changes in the brain, injuries, mood disorders, substance abuse and diseases. While some cannot be changed, evidence exists of many modifiable lifestyle factors: diet and physical activity, social engagement, and cognitive activity, smoking and alcohol consumption which may stabilize or improve declining cognitive function.”

Researchers note that these elements fit together like pieces of a puzzle. “These factors work via multiple mechanisms and are thought to either increase or reduce the risk of dementia,” the article concludes.

Preventing Dementia: Some Statistical Perspective

Alzheimer’s disease, which Wolters defines in her US News article as “a progressive, degenerative disorder that attacks the brain’s nerve cells,” is currently the diagnosis of over six million Americans. In fact, Alzheimer’s impacts many, many more than that, factoring in patients, caregivers, health providers, and family members.

“The number of people living with Alzheimer’s has risen in recent years and is expected to keep rising,” Wolters writes. “By 2060, the Alzheimer’s Association predicts that nearly 14 million Americans will be living with Alzheimer’s dementia.”

Alzheimer’s is the leading cause of death among older adults, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, and is the most common form of dementia, a group of diseases that have a direct effect on the human brain, most notably memory, critical thinking, and behavior. Sadly, one in three seniors will die from some form of dementia, including Alzheimer’s.

Preventing Dementia: Living – and Dying – with Alzheimer’s

The numbers of Alzheimer’s sufferers are not the only statistics that have risen. The fatalities from the disease have also gone up. “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,” Wolters writes.

She adds, “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.”

Dementia is More Common but Not a “Normal Part of Aging”

While memory loss has a reputation for being “normal” as we age, Wolters notes that it’s important to approach dementia (and Alzheimer’s) with the right mindset, understanding that it is not a normal part of the aging process according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Because of this, it’s important not to simply take any early signs and symptoms for granted, but to talk to your doctor right away about any concerns you might have for yourself or a loved one. 

“Unfortunately, scientists have not yet discovered a cure for Alzheimer’s, nor do they know exactly how it starts,” Wolters writes. “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.”

Preventing Dementia: Not Foolproof, but Promising

Alzheimer’s prevention is a puzzle that experts are still attempting to solve, but there are ways to reduce the risks. Healthy habits, according to the CDC, can go a long way to reducing the likelihood of dementia.

“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 and associate professor of neurology 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.”

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

Wolters provides these helpful habits to keep dementia at bay.

Habit #1: Practicing Mental Stimulation

Infamously, memory loss is one of the most recognizable symptoms of dementia, which often begins as mild cognitive impairment. But sharpening your brain through giving it “daily exercise” can help to keep you sharp. “You have to be proactive about your brain health,” says Charles J. Fuschillo Jr., president and chief executive officer of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America in New York City.

To combat memory loss, Wolters suggests performing “mentally stimulating activities” in your day-to-day life. While the immediate image this conjures up is usually games like crossword puzzles or sudoku—both fantastic options—Wolters suggests that you can also strengthen your brain through reading the newspaper or a book, studying a new language, learning a new skill (like sewing, painting, or playing an instrument) – or even brushing your teeth with the opposite hand! (Try it – it works.)

Preventing Dementia: Memory Tests and Free Screenings

Fuschillo also suggests asking your primary care doctor for a memory test as part of your annual physical. He explains, “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.”

After the screening, the health professional administering it will usually review your results with you. If more testing is recommended, they may help you set up a follow-up appointment.

Wolters adds, “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.”

Habit #2: Managing Other Medical Conditions

Wolters notes that certain metabolic conditions, like “diabetes, obesity, hypertension and hyperlipidemia” may contribute to risks of Alzheimer’s, especially if these conditions co-occur as a group. “Managing these conditions can not only help your current health but could have future benefits too,” she writes.

Dr. Verna Porter, neurologist and director of dementia-related programs at Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, California, says that increasing studies corroborate this connection. “A growing body of research has implicated a strong link between metabolic disorders and impaired nerve signaling in the brain,” she says, and encourages a focus on healthy nutrition to reduce inflammation in the brain, which will help to protect it from damage.

Habit #3: Eating a Healthier Diet

Porter suggests using the MIND diet, which is “associated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Wolters explains that the MIND diet is a combination of the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), and the Mediterranean diet. The diet prioritizes vegetables (especially leafy greens), nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil, and resveratrol (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,” Wolters adds.

Habit #4: Staying Physically Active

As regular readers of the Blog no doubt know by now, we are big fans of promoting regular physical activity. And the benefit for the brain is staggering, according to the Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation, who report that regular exercise could reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s by an incredible 50 percent!

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

Porter suggests that people start with 30-45 minutes of exercise four to five days a week, and encourages “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.”

Habit #5: Maintaining Social Connections

Spending time with family and friends may do more than make you feel good; it can help to protect you from dementia, too.

Even if you don’t have a close social circle nearby, there are other ways to cultivate these dementia-preventing social relationships. Wolters suggests joining a volunteer organization, club, or other social group in your area. You can also try taking a group class (like a workout class or community college course), or spend more time in public spaces like the movie theater, parks, museums, coffeeshops, or library.

Porter says that “maintaining strong relationships with family and friends and regularly participating in face-to-face interactions with others can be crucial.”

Habit #6:  Getting Enough Quality Sleep

Poor sleep can be a real hazard in many ways, and can also leave you at higher risk for dementia. Wolters writes, “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.”

This beta-amyloid is described as a “brain-clogging protein” that interferes with brain function, according to Porter. It also can keep you from sleeping deeply, which aids in memory formation. This is why, she says, that people with Alzheimer’s often suffer from insomnia.

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

Habit #7: Managing Stress

While stress is a normal part of the human experience, constant high levels of stress can have a real negative effect on your health, and may leave you at higher risk of dementia.

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.”

Relaxation techniques can help to manage stressors and greatly diminish the damage to the brain they can cause. Wolters lists breathing exercises, prayer and/or meditation, yoga, reflection, and other religious practices as beneficial habits to cultivate for reduced stress. 

Habit #8: Quitting Smoking, Cutting Alcohol Intake

This one probably comes as no surprise if you’re a regular reader of the Blog, but reducing your use of certain substances—like tobacco and alcohol—can greatly reduce your risk of dementia.

“According to the CDC,” Wolters writes, “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.”

Breaking News: Rajiv’s New Book is Here!

We have big news! The long-awaited book by Rajiv Nagaich, called Your Retirement: Dream or Disaster, has been released and is now available to the public.  As a friend of AgingOptions, we know you’ll want to get your copy and spread the word.

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Through stories, examples, and personal insights, Rajiv takes us along on his journey of expanding awareness about a problem that few are willing to talk about, yet it’s one that results in millions of Americans sleepwalking their way into their worst nightmares about aging. Rajiv lays bare the shortcomings of traditional retirement planning advice, exposes the biases many professionals have about what is best for older adults, and much more.

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Your retirement can be the exciting and fulfilling life you’ve always wanted it to be. Start by reading and sharing Rajiv’s important new book. And remember, Age On, everyone!

(originally reported at

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