Dementia is the loss of memory, language, problem-solving and other abilities that require thinking. It is often caused by Alzheimer’s disease and mainly affects those 65 and older. Unfortunately, dementia can be severe enough that it interferes with daily life, and those who have dementia often require additional care.
“Dementia is a group of conditions characterized by impairment of at least two brain functions, such as judgment and memory loss,” explained Blair Steel, a psychologist at Carrara Treatment, Wellness & Spa. “Symptoms of dementia include forgetfulness, limited social skills and impairment in thinking that interferes with daily functioning.”
So what causes dementia? Your age, family history, race and ethnicity, heart health and history of a traumatic brain injury are all factors that increase your risk of developing the condition. But another big category is lifestyle habits. So while you can’t control your genetics, there are a few seemingly harmless behaviors you may be doing that can increase your risk. Read on to learn more about them below:
1. Not moving your body enough or sitting for too long
Exercising ― aerobic exercise, especially ― can help reduce cognitive impairment and dementia risk. Long-term, regular exercise can affect your brain and your overall health in a positive way, especially if you’re nearing 60. Getting your body moving daily is something you can do to decrease your risk of dementia.
Steel said, “Being inactive does a number on the brain.” Just like other muscles, a good thing to remember is, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”
2. Not socializing enough
Social health plays a role in the development of dementia; an active and socially integrated lifestyle can protect against the disease. Stimulating the brain with social interaction is important for everyone, especially as they age. Though, in the age of social media, socializing has become a broader term.
“We spend a lot of hours on social media, however, this likely does not stimulate the brain’s experience of connection as much as socializing in person,” Steel explained.
Poor social health can overstimulate the body’s stress response through increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, raise blood pressure and decrease blood flow to vital organs, amongst other health issues.
3. Getting inadequate sleep
Sleep disturbances and dementia are two common and significant health problems in older adults. (Let’s face it, sleep tends to be put on the back burner.) Whether due to family obligations, work or staying up late on your phone or watching TV, there’s always something in the way of adequate sleep.
Unfortunately, sleep patterns in earlier life may contribute to later problems. If you’re having trouble sleeping, or not sleeping at all, sleep deprivation could increase your dementia risk.
“Avoid screens and light after a certain hour and try to not reach for your phone if your sleep is interrupted,” Steel suggested. Try unplugging at least 30 minutes before bed.
4. Being chronically stressed
According to the Alzheimer’s Society, stress is linked to dementia because when you’re stressed and cortisol is released, it can create problems with your memory. The negative effects of stress, particularly chronic stress, on the brain can lead to cognitive decline due to prolonged elevations of cortisol — which plays an important role in how your body responds to stress.
Working to reduce your stress through healthy habits can be key to mitigating this risk. Exercise, creative activities or hobbies, spending time with loved ones, meditation, watching a good show or reading a good book can all help you relax.
Additionally, “try to be flexible with your reactions and avoid the ‘my way or the highway’ mentality, which can be common in older adults,” Steel said.
5. Consuming excessive amounts of alcohol
The Alzheimer’s Society also says there’s a specific type of alcohol-related dementia that is considered alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD). This is due to the damage to the brain caused by drinking too much alcohol on a regular basis, usually over many years.
Those with this type of dementia may have issues like cooking a meal, remembering things, thinking things through, and even struggling with more complex tasks like managing finances.
6. Eating an unbalanced diet
Research shows a diet high in ultra-processed foods can increase dementia risk in adults. While no one’s diet is perfect, ensuring that the majority of the time you are sticking with well-balanced, healthy meals can be extremely beneficial.
Try eating leafy greens, berries, whole grains, beans, nuts, fish, and healthy fats like olive oil while limiting red meat, sweets, cheese, butter, and fast and fried food. These are healthy options that optimize your brain health.
You can lower your risk of dementia by altering the habits mentioned above, but you should also speak to a doctor if you’re struggling with your cognition.
“If you or a loved one is experiencing signs of dementia, it is important to speak to a doctor and get an assessment,” Steel said. Your primary care physician will be able to assess you, and, if needed, refer you to a specialist.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.