6 Ways To Reduce Your Risk Of Dementia, According To A New Report
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around 50 million people worldwide have dementia1. Dementia is a condition characterized by difficulty with memory, thinking, and doing everyday activities. As for its causes, Alzheimer's disease is one of the most common causes of dementia and is the leading cause of death in the U.S.
"In the next 30 years, the number of people with dementia is expected to triple," said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Ph.D., in a statement. "We need to do everything we can to reduce our risk of dementia."
Today, the WHO released new guidelines2 that provide specific steps for reducing the risk of cognitive decline, and while dementia most commonly affects older people, the WHO points out that it is not a normal part of aging and there are many lifestyle changes we can make earlier on to reduce our risk of dementia:
Getting regular exercise
Research suggests that exercising can boost cognitive functioning by increasing brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is a group of proteins that support the healthy functioning of neurons3 involved in things like memory and learning. Exercise can include anything from getting up a few times a day to walk around the block to participating in high-intensity interval training (also linked to longevity).
It's not surprising that smoking cigarettes is on this list as research suggests that smoking may increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease4 and other types of dementia.
Avoiding heavy alcohol consumption
While some research points out that light alcohol consumption may actually prevent cognitive decline, studies also suggest that alcohol use disorders, meaning issues with limiting drinking, is associated with a higher risk of dementia and particularly early-onset dementia5. The WHO refers to this recommendation as "avoiding harmful use of alcohol," so it's worth thinking about how you consume alcohol and making appropriate changes.
While maintaining a healthy weight is essential for a variety of health outcomes, research suggests that people with a higher BMI are at a higher risk of developing dementia than those who are not overweight. Things like regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, and reducing stress may help people maintain a healthy weight.
Eating a healthy diet
The WHO recommends eating a healthier diet and particularly points to the Mediterranean diet as a promising guideline for reducing the risk of cognitive decline. Research has found that the Mediterranean diet may reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease and depression as well as boost mood and brain health. It helps that the Mediterranean diet is less restrictive than many popular diets and still allows you to eat some delicious foods that just happen to be anti-inflammatory.
Maintaining healthy blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels
Research has found that high blood sugar levels are associated with increased risk of developing dementia and increased blood pressure is known to affect brain health negatively and put older adults at risk of dementia. Studies have also found an association between high cholesterol and an increased risk of dementia. Eating a more plant-based diet, avoiding processed foods, and eating foods high in omega-3 fatty acids are just a few ways you work toward healthier blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar.
Beyond these tips for decreasing dementia risk, the report also includes information to help health care providers and policymakers as they move toward more preventive care and lifestyle interventions, which we think is a step in the right direction for the treatment of cognitive decline.
The good news is many of these recommendations are connected. Meaning if you begin exercising more regularly and eating a healthier diet, there's a good chance that'll positively affect your weight and heart health, which ticks four of the six recommendations! Bottom line: It's worth getting a head start, no matter what that looks like, on supporting your brain health for the years to come.
Caroline Muggia has a B.A. in Environmental Studies & Psychology from Middlebury College. She received her E-RYT with Yoga Works and is a graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. A writer and environmental advocate, she is passionate about helping people live healthier and more sustainable lives. You can usually find her drinking matcha or spending time by the ocean.