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These 5 Daily Habits Can Lower Your Dementia Risk, New Research Shows

Some simple interventions can deliver better brain health.

Right now, five million Americans over the age of 65 are living with dementia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). By 2060, that number is expected to rise to over 14 million seniors living with impaired memory, thinking, or decision-making abilities. However, dementia is not a normal part of aging, and it's far from inevitable. Scientists say that how you live your life has a profound impact on your cognitive health as you age.

In fact, a Feb. 2024 study published in the medical journal JAMA Neurology now confirms that five key daily habits can slash your dementia risk. The study looked at data from the Rush Memory and Aging Project, a longitudinal clinical-pathologic study conducted from 1997 to 2022. Using autopsy results from 754 deceased individuals, along with information on their prior lifestyle habits, the researchers found that these easy interventions were associated with better cognitive health.

RELATED: 94% of People With These Vision Problems Develop Alzheimer's, New Study Finds.

Don't smoke.

Hands breaking a cigarette in half
Pixelimage / iStock

Chances are you're already aware that smoking causes cancer, but fewer people realize that smoking is also linked to dementia. According to Alzheimer's Research UK, some studies suggest that this is because the chemicals in cigarette smoke could increase oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain.

"Smoking has also been linked with damage to the brain's outer layer, called the cortex. This part of the brain becomes thinner with age. Researchers think smoking may speed this process up and could lead to a decline in a person's ability to think and process information," they note.

Finally, smoking affects the heart, which can in turn drive up your dementia risk. The organization notes that smoking can thicken your arterial walls, thereby increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke, and vascular dementia.

Within 10 years of quitting smoking your dementia risk returns to the same level of a person who has never smoked, says the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA).

Get the recommended amount of exercise.

close up of mature man holding two dumbbells doing exercises at the gym

The JAMA Neurology study also found that getting the recommended amount of activity—at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per week—also helped to slash dementia risk.

"Exercise helps strengthen and preserve the brain just as it does for muscles and bones. This is especially true, and important, for memory centers of the brain like the hippocampus," David Merrill, MD, PhD, a geriatric psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute's Pacific Brain Health Center, tells Best Life.

RELATED: Just 4 Minutes of Exercise Can Keep Your Brain Young, Science Says—Here's How.

Curb your alcohol intake.

Two glasses of whiskey on wooden bar with holiday lights behind it
SOMKID THONGDEE / Shutterstock

The study next found that limiting your alcohol intake to the recommended amounts can also lower your dementia risk. To reap brain-healthy benefits, women should consume no more than one alcoholic drink per day, and men should consume no more than two.

"Alcohol interferes with the brain's communication pathways and can affect the way the brain looks and works," explains the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Their experts explain that drinking alcohol can affect important brain functions, including balance, memory, speech, and judgment. "Long-term heavy drinking causes alterations in the neurons, such as reductions in their size," they write.

Keep your brain active.

A young woman in white pajamas reading a book on a window seat
Andrii Kobryn / Shutterstock

Staying mentally engaged as you get older can also help prevent dementia, the study suggests.

"No matter how old you are, or whether you're healthy or currently have a neurologic condition, science has proven that your brain loves to learn," says Vernon Williams, MD, sports neurologist, pain management specialist, and founding director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute.

"How efficient the brain is at learning or adapting can significantly impact how we respond to a change in our environment or an injury throughout a lifetime," he continues, noting that this is known as neuroplasticity.

"Neuroplasticity is the 'brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life.' But here's the catch—for the brain's neurons to form connections that are ultimately beneficial to an individual, those neurons must have the correct type of stimulation," he tells Best Life.

Reading books, playing challenging games, or learning a new language can all help ward off cognitive decline. However, Williams adds that even smaller challenges such as "taking a different route to work in the morning or learning to make a new meal recipe" can be beneficial for brain health.

RELATED: 8 Best Supplements for Brain Health, New Research Shows.

Follow the MIND diet or a similar plan.

Top-down view of Mediterranean food on a wooden table
los_angela / iStock

Finally, how you eat can also greatly impact your risk of dementia as you age. The study determined that by following the MIND diet or a comparable meal plan, you can slash your risk of cognitive decline.

A variation on the Mediterranean diet that is specifically targeted toward brain health, the MIND diet centers on fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean proteins including beans, legumes, and nuts. It also limits your intake of added sweets, sodium, and saturated fats, all of which have been found to be harmful to your heart and brain health.

Best Life offers the most up-to-date information from top experts, new research, and health agencies, but our content is not meant to be a substitute for professional guidance. When it comes to the medication you're taking or any other health questions you have, always consult your healthcare provider directly.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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