There are 6.2 million people living with Alzheimer's disease in the U.S. alone, making it the fifth leading cause of death in the country. That's roughly 1 in 9 people over age 65, and that number is estimated to go up due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, these stats mean that many of us likely know someone with dementia or Alzheimer's and may even have a family history of cognitive-related conditions.
There are several genes that influence your risk for Alzheimer's disease, both positively and negatively. While genes can be inherited, there are other factors that can affect how genes express themselves in an individual. Numerous things can "turn on" and "turn off" genes, like environment (think: where you live—rural or urban), lifestyle (like diet and physical activity), risk-factor management (like not smoking) and more. While there are many factors at play when it comes to cognitive health, there is one thing that stands alone for its protective benefits—and that is living a healthy lifestyle.
A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that , depending on genetic risk, some people with a healthy lifestyle had an almost 300% lower risk of developing dementia than those with an unhealthy lifestyle. Sure, that might not be all that surprising and "a healthy lifestyle" feels ... vague. So, we dived into the research to find out exactly what that means for you, so that you can stay healthy and sharp for longer.
Healthy Lifestyle Tips for Dementia
Luckily for us, there are several ways to pursue a healthy lifestyle that can meet any schedule, home situation or budget.
One of the main tenets of a healthy lifestyle is moving your body. Studies have found that regular exercise can protect against cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease, even if it's just 10 minutes a day. Activities like walking a few times a week and general aerobic exercise (think: cardio) can especially slash your risk. That said, one of the best ways to start exercising and stick with it is to find a form of movement that you enjoy.
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Another major part of leading a healthy lifestyle is having a healthy, balanced diet. When it comes to dementia, there are some specific recommendations that provide extra benefits, too. The MIND diet is a fusion of the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets that focuses on super-brain-healthy foods. Eating ample whole grains, leafy greens, berries, fish, nuts, beans and vegetables is core to following this eating pattern. Recent research has even found that eating in line with the MIND diet can lessen risk of cognitive decline, even if you're already experiencing symptoms (check out our 1-Day Healthy Memory-Boosting Meal Plan for more inspiration).
Habits to Avoid
On the flip side, there are a few unhealthy habits that can up your risk for cognitive decline. Not eating a nutritious diet and being inactive are big contributors, but there are several less obvious unhealthy lifestyle habits that don't help either. Not getting enough sleep can put a serious strain on your brain in more ways than one. If you struggle with catching zzz's, there are some expert-approved ways to get a better night's sleep like cutting down on screen time, ditching late-night alcohol and more. Speaking of alcohol, excess booze consumption can also be problematic for brain health (see what a dietitian says about how much alcohol you should be drinking each day for more on that).
While it may be less concrete, having good social support is crucial for staying sharp as you age. Research has shown that people who feel socially isolated are at risk for diminished brain function. And, a recent study also found that people who feel like they have someone around who will listen to them have brains that function about four years younger than expected relative to their physical age. Try to regularly block off time to be social, even if it's virtual.
Dementia and Alzheimer's disease affect over 6 million adults in America, maybe even including some in your family. While there are genetics involved in the development of Alzheimer's disease, leading a healthy lifestyle is the No. 1 way to decrease your risk. Eating well, exercising regularly, getting plenty of sleep and being social can all help you stay sharp as you age. For more, check out these science-backed ways to reduce your risk of cognitive decline.