It's well known that the brain disorders known as dementia are serious and progressive: Ultimately, they interfere with a person's ability to function independently, and at the moment they have no cure. But it's less well-known that there are things you can do to reduce your risk of developing dementia as you get older, while improving the quality of your life right now. These are eight easy habits for avoiding dementia, according to neurologists. Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You May Have Already Had COVID.
Exercise Your Brain
"To keep a brain healthy as we age, we must use it or lose it," says Dr. Douglas Scharre, a neurologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. "Just like a muscle, if you're not strengthening your mind, your health may suffer." Some of Scharre's recommendations: "Play games, work puzzles, read, travel, exercise, invent, innovate, play a musical instrument, write a story, write a letter, write a blog, volunteer, teach, lend a helping hand, join a group, go to a play or concert or lecture, or participate in research."
Exercise Your Body
In a study published last summer in the journal Neurology, South Korean scientists looked at a group of people who were genetically predisposed to Alzheimer's disease; they found that the people who were more physically active experienced less cognitive decline. "Exercise, both aerobic and nonaerobic (strength training), is not only good for the body; it's even better for the brain," writes CNN correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta in Keep Sharp, his book on reducing dementia risk. "The connection between physical fitness and brain fitness is clear, direct, and powerful."
Stay Socially Engaged
Staying socially connected to others is an excellent way to keep your brain active. Scharre advises that his patients socialize regularly. "Involve yourself in a discussion that allows for you to make associations, judgments, deductions and assessments based on life experiences," he says.
Keep Your Heart Healthy
A long-term study of nearly 16,000 people published in the journal JAMA Neurology found that people who had the highest rates of vascular illness (including diabetes and high blood pressure) also had the highest risk of developing dementia.
Get Enough Quality Sleep
People over age 50 who sleep less than six hours a night are 30% more likely to develop dementia in their later years, says a study recently published in the journal Nature Communications. That risk was independent of "sociodemographic, behavioral, cardiometabolic, and mental health factors," the study's authors wrote. "These findings suggest that short sleep duration in midlife is associated with an increased risk of late-onset dementia." Experts say adults of all ages should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep each night.
Eat a Healthy Diet
An unhealthy diet — one high in processed foods and simple sugars — is bad for your heart and brain. Instead, try the Mediterranean diet, which includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, and healthy fats like olive oil and nuts. "These items aren't only linked to boosting the brain power of elderly people, but they've also been shown to be even more beneficial to your health than a low-fat diet by protecting against type 2 diabetes, preventing heart disease and stroke and reducing muscle weakness and frailty in aging bones," says Scharre.
Protect Your Hearing
According to a recent study, older adults who start losing both vision and hearing are twice as likely to develop dementia as people with only one or neither impairment. "Hearing loss can be an early sign of many conditions, including dementia," says Dr. Hope Lanter, an audiologist at hear.com. "Proper hearing care is a vital component to a healthy life, and there are ways to help lessen the risk of losing your hearing." Limiting or avoiding noise exposure is the most important. Wear ear protection during noisy everyday tasks like mowing the lawn, and get your hearing checked regularly to catch any loss in the early stages.
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"Among the many health reasons smoking is bad for your body is that it can hinder brain function," says Scharre. "One study proved that smoking just one cigarette a day for an extended period can reduce cognitive ability, and smoking 15 cigarettes daily hinders critical thinking and memory by almost 2 percent. When you stop smoking, your brain benefits from increased circulation almost instantly." And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.