Dementia Prevention: 3 Factors To Control

Dementia is extremely common. According to a 2022 study, a startling 10% of adults in the United States over the age of 65 have dementia, and another 22% have mild cognitive impairment. And dementia risk only increases as we get older: Thirty-five percent of people over the age of 90 are living with dementia.

The condition isn’t entirely preventable — age, genetics, and environmental influences can all play a role. But some lifestyle-related risk factors are within your control. Below, neurologists share the three most important risk factors to address if you want to prevent dementia, and the best steps you can start taking today.

Risk factor #1: Not enough exercise

We all know that the benefits of getting the recommended 150 minutes of exercise per week extend far beyond maintaining or losing weight. And one of those benefits is lowering your dementia risk.

”Obesity, hypertension and diabetes are associated with up to 50% of dementia cases,” Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, told HuffPost. “It follows that improving risk factors, such as [sedentary] lifestyles that contribute to developing those conditions, could significantly decrease dementia rates.”

In addition to helping to control obesity, hypertension and diabetes, Pascual-Leone said, physical exercise might also help promote the formation of new brain cells. “This improves the efficacy of the mechanisms of brain plasticity, which are critical for the acquisition of new skills and the formation of memories,” he said.

Don’t know where to begin with exercise? Pascual-Leone said that if you haven’t exercised in a while, you should talk to your doctor or physical therapist to help you get a safe start.

“Aerobic, strength training and mind-body exercises can help sharpen your mind,” he said. “Aim for a combination of aerobic exercise such as walking or cycling, strength training with weights or resistance bands, and mind-body exercises such as yoga or tai chi, which can calm your mind. Work up to at least 30 minutes of exercise per day, five days per week.”

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Social interaction and exercise are both crucial for curbing dementia risk.

Risk factor #2: Not enough social interaction

Loneliness is highly correlated with depression, alcohol misuse and sleep problems. As it turns out, it’s also a risk factor for dementia. “Having limited social engagement and interaction is linked to higher dementia risk,” Dr. Smita Patel, a physician and neuroscientist, told HuffPost.

Beyond protecting your brain, Patel noted that increased social interaction can help you live longer, too. “Your overall survival rate increases by 50% if you have strong social relationships. More than 80% of centenarians communicate with a friend or family member daily.”

“Interactions with families, friends, and neighbors make us who we are,” Pascual-Leone said. “These moments not only make us feel good, but they also improve our brain function and overall health. Studies show that feeling lonely can be as harmful for your health as better-known risk factors such as daily smoking, or serious health conditions like diabetes.”

If you’re worried you don’t get enough social interaction, Pascual-Leone said there are some steps you can take ASAP.

“Start by identifying five close friends, and connect with each person at least once a week,” he said. “This can mean calling them on the phone or meeting for tea or coffee. Next, ask yourself if you feel lonely. If the answer is yes, talk with your family and closest friends about what you can do together. You can also think about joining a club, class, or group in your area made up of people who share your interests.”

Risk factor #3: Not enough sleep

“Inadequate sleep, particularly sleeping less than five to six hours per night, is associated with an increased risk of developing dementia later in life,” Patel said. And unfortunately, insomnia only becomes more common as we age.

If you’re struggling to get more than five hours of sleep per night, Pascual-Leone suggested a few steps to take. “You can do this by limiting alcohol, avoiding large meals and drinks two hours before bedtime, keeping your room nice and cool (between 60 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit), avoiding exposure to phones, laptops and TVs two hours before bed, and using a white noise app or machine,” he said.

These aren’t the only lifestyle-related risk factors for dementia, but getting them under control can make a significant difference in lowering your risk.

“There is currently is no cure for dementia,” Pascual-Leone said. “But there are several lifestyle and activity behaviors everyone can put into action to manage their overall brain health.”

In other words, when it comes to dementia, prevention is the best medicine. If you get started today, your future self will definitely thank you.

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