According to the World Health Organization, 55 million people around the world have dementia, and this number is expected to rise to 78 million by 2030 (1).
While there is currently no cure for the neurodegenerative condition, one can reduce their risk. In fact, while genetics does play a role, a recent study has shed light on how lifestyle habits can help protect the health of your brain.
Lifestyle Habits To Combat Dementia
According to the authors of the study, published in Neurology, there are 7 healthy habits referred to as Life’s Simple 7 (LS7), that are used as metrics for cardiovascular and brain health. These habits have been associated with a lower risk of dementia, but it is unclear whether this association holds among those with a high genetic risk of dementia. That said, the study’s objective was to evaluate the extent to which LS7 may offset dementia risk across a range of genetic risks.
For the study, the researchers looked at 8 823 European Americans and 2 738 Black Americans over the course of 30 years, rating each participant on a scale of 0 to 14 in the LS7 categories to determine the extent of their healthy habits in combination with their genetic risk of developing dementia.
According to the study, participants with higher LS7 scores were less likely to develop dementia. In fact, each time a participant gained one point on the LS7 scale, their risk for dementia dropped by 9%.
What are the lifestyle factors for brain longevity?
If you’re interested in keeping your brain healthy and reducing your risk for dementia, here are the 7 healthy habits that can help you do so.
1. Physical activity
Yes, exercise isn’t just good for your body, but it’s also amazing for your cognitive health. According to a study published in PNAS, physical activity increased the size of the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain responsible for memory, learning, and emotion.
The hippocampus tends to reduce in size in late adulthood, increasing the risk for dementia, but it appears that breaking a sweat can help to combat this. According to the findings, “exercise training increased hippocampal volume by 2%, effectively reversing age-related loss in volume by 1 to 2 y.”
A more recent study, published earlier this year, looked at 649605 military veterans ages 30–95 years. Per Medical News Today, the findings revealed the following:
- The fittest were 33% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders.
- The second most fit group was 26% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders.
- The third most fit group was 20% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders.
- The fourth most fit were 13% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders.
2. Healthy diet
You are what you eat, and so is your brain. In the same way that processed foods can harm your body, they can also do damage to your cognitive capabilities. Thankfully, research has shown that a diet rich in antioxidants, fatty acids, folate, and B vitamins can help to reduce one’s risk for dementia.
BMI refers to one’s body mass index, and it’s often used to determine if one falls within the healthy weight range. In regards to your dementia risk, clinical research has shown a link between obesity and the risk of the development of mild cognitive impairment (5).
That said, the best way to maintain a healthy BMI, and reduce your risk for cognitive decline, is by following a healthy diet and staying active.
4. Not smoking
As if you needed another reason as to why you shouldn’t light up a cigarette. According to the Alzheimer’s Society, smoking can cause a 30-50% increased risk of developing dementia.
Smoking is a dangerous habit, but sometimes it takes more than accepting that knowledge to quit. In that case, Cleveland Clinic pulmonologist Neha Solanki, MD. offers encouragement and tips on how you can quit smoking.
5. Maintaining healthy blood pressure
High blood pressure (hypertension) is another risk factor that can increase the likelihood of you developing dementia.
Uncontrolled high blood pressure can damage blood vessels, including those associated with the brain. This can then affect blood flow, increasing the risk of vascular dementia. Thankfully, with the right diet, medication, and exercise routine, you can manage your blood pressure.
6. Total cholesterol
High total cholesterol levels won’t only affect your heart health, but it can also influence the health of your brain.
For a study funded by Alzheimer’s UK, researchers used the data of more than 1.8 million UK adults aged over 40 data. This data came from the UK Clinical Practice Research Database (CPRD). The data included blood cholesterol measurements between 1992 and 2009, with a follow-up period of up to 23 years or until dementia diagnosis.
According to findings published in Lancet Healthy Longevity, 2.3% of participants who had an LDL cholesterol recording, went on to be diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Following the findings, the researchers called for LDL cholesterol to be added as a modifiable risk factor for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease,
“While the link between LDL cholesterol and dementia and Alzheimer´s disease is modest and found in people followed up from middle age for over 10 years, any modifiable risk factor is welcome for this huge, burgeoning and devastating disease.” said the study lead, Dr. Nawab Qizilbash.
7. Healthy blood sugar
Blood sugar levels won’t only increase your risk for diabetes, but they can also do the same for your dementia risk.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, a 2021 study found that older adults with Type 1 diabetes who were hospitalized for just one blood sugar extreme faced a higher risk of dementia.
How exactly does diabetes influence diabetes risk? Well, healthy brain activity is linked to glucose levels and if glucose levels are affected, which is common in individuals with diabetes, then this can affect brain function.
While the authors of the study acknowledge that the study does have its limitations, the fact is that there do exist modifiable risk factors when it comes to dementia. Therefore, it is important for us to make the appropriate lifestyle changes so that we can protect the health and longevity of our brains.
2. Tin, A., Bressler, J., Simino, J., Sullivan, K. J., et al. (2022). Genetic Risk, Midlife Life’s Simple 7, and Incident Dementia in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study. Neurology, 10.1212/WNL.0000000000200520. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0000000000200520
3. Erickson, K. I., Voss, M. W., Prakash, R. S., Basak, C., et al. (2011). Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(7), 3017–3022. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1015950108
4. Smith, P. J., & Blumenthal, J. A. (2016). Dietary Factors and Cognitive Decline. The journal of prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, 3(1), 53–64. https://doi.org/10.14283/jpad.2015.71
5. Nguyen, J. C., Killcross, A. S., & Jenkins, T. A. (2014). Obesity and cognitive decline: role of inflammation and vascular changes. Frontiers in neuroscience, 8, 375. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2014.00375
6. Iwagami, M., al. (2021). Blood cholesterol and risk of dementia in more than 1·8 million people over two decades: a retrospective cohort study. The Lancet Healthy Longevity, Volume 2, Issue 8, e498 – e506. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2666-7568(21)00150-1