7 Things You're Doing That Spike Your Dementia Risk, Doctors Warn

When it comes to keeping your brain healthy, you may be your own worst enemy.

We all occasionally misplace our keys or struggle to remember the name of an acquaintance. But when these and other difficulties with memory start to happen more frequently and begin to impact day-to-day life, dementia becomes a concern. Many factors can put people at higher risk for developing dementia, and while things like age, genetics, and gender cannot be changed, others are within our control. Research has shown that avoiding certain habits can help reduce your risk of developing diseases such as Alzheimer's—the most common type of dementia—by up to 60 percent. Read on to find out whether your daily habits are putting you at an increased risk of cognitive decline.

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Not engaging in enough physical activity

Woman doing an ab exercise workout in the living room

Studies have found that failing to stay fit makes you up to four times more likely to develop dementia. Establishing an exercise routine—even something as simple as going for a walk a few times a week—can help to combat this, says Samuel Gandy, MD, professor and Associate Director of the Mount Sinai Alzheimer's Disease Research Center in New York City. "I tell all my patients that if they leave with one, and only one, piece of advice, that the one thing that they can do to reduce their risk of dementia or slow the progression of dementia is to exercise," he explained to CBS News.

Lack of mental stimulation

Older Couple Reading

"Use it or lose it" is an important piece of advice when it comes to brain health. Keeping your mind active through activities such as reading, learning new skills, playing games, or even just engaging in regular social interaction can all help to keep you sharp and reduce the risk of cognitive problems as you get older. Studies have also found a correlation between higher education levels and a lower likelihood of developing dementia, further emphasizing the importance of using and challenging your brain.

Eating an unhealthy diet

Variety of Unhealthy Food

Numerous studies have uncovered a relationship between excess weight or obesity and the onset of dementia later in life. One particular study, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, found that "overweight people with a BMI of 25 to 29.9 were 27 percent more likely to develop dementia, and the obese, with a BMI of 30 or higher, were 31 percent more likely to become demented" compared to people who were a healthy weight.

Being mindful of your diet and nutrition is key to keeping your mind sharp—and adding foods such as leafy greens, nuts, fish, and berries to your meals can help boost brain performance, according to Harvard Health.

Drinking alcohol

Man Surrounded by Empty Beer Glasses

It's no secret that alcohol has a direct effect on your brain. And according to the American Addiction Centers, heavy and long-term drinking can have severe, damaging effects on cognitive function, even leading to dementia. A study published by The Lancet Public Health found that "alcohol use disorders should be recognized as a major risk factor for all types of dementia," and that "alcohol-related dementia should be recognized as one of the main causes of early-onset dementia."

The lack of coordination that can result from overindulging also increases your likelihood of accidents involving head injuries—which have been linked to increased dementia risk.

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Heavy tobacco use

Tobacco <eaves in Cigarettes

Tobacco use causes a slew of health problems, and you can add possible cognitive impairment to the list. The nicotine in tobacco can disrupt your brain's functions, cause faster cognitive decline as you age, and lead to an increased risk of dementia—although both frequency and total length of use affect the severity of these symptoms. One study by the National Library of Medicine found that research participants who continued to use tobacco heavily throughout the 25-year experiment were twice as likely to have cognitive impairment, compared to those who didn't use tobacco.

Breathing polluted air

Smoke and Smog in the Air
Ankor Light/Shutterstock

In addition to damaging your lungs, extended exposure to pollutants like traffic exhaust or burning materials may also put your cognitive function in danger, and your surrounding environment could be to blame. "Previous research suggests living in locations with high levels of outdoor air pollution—especially tiny particles or droplets in the air known as fine particulate matter—is associated with higher likelihood of Alzheimer's or other dementias, and can cause brain damage and brain shrinkage," a press release covering the 2019 Alzheimer's Association International Conference states.

Not getting enough sleep at night

Woman Yawning in Bed

Getting an insufficient amount of sleep for any reason can lead to many serious health problems, from heart failure to stroke—and yes, even dementia. "Research is ongoing, but so far, a history of sleep trouble does seem to increase the risk of dementia for some people," Meg Burke, MD, told GoodRx Health. "One study suggests sleep deprivation could increase your dementia risk by 20 percent," she said. "In middle age, even getting less than six hours of sleep per night may increase your dementia risk in the future."

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Megan Hageman
Megan is a freelance writer based in Columbus, Ohio. Read more
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