More than 5 million Americans are living with dementia. The two most common forms of this progressive memory-robbing disorder are Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and vascular dementia, both of which are linked to problems with the heart and blood vessels. AD alone ranks as the most expensive disease in the U.S., costing up to $215 billion a year, more than double the cost of heart disease or cancer. What’s more, rates of dementia are expected to triple in coming decades due to the aging of the population.
The good news, however, is that an optimal lifestyle can dramatically reduce your risk of developing dementia, according to a study by 24 leading experts published in The Lancet. The experts identified nine potentially reversible lifestyle risk factors — and suggest that by eliminating them, 35% of dementia cases may be preventable. Research by the BaleDoneen Method and other scientists has added a tenth factor to the list. Here’s a look at ten ways to protect your brain health and keep your memory sharp.
- Have your hearing checked. A surprising new discovery: Several studies report that even mild hearing loss raises dementia risk, while more severe hearing loss doubles or triples the threat. Hearing may be important to protecting memory because of what study lead author, University College London professor Gill Livingston, calls “the use it or lose it” model. “We get a lot of intellectual stimulation through hearing,” she told Vox. Researchers theorize that hearing aids may help reduce dementia risk, but further study is needed to find out for sure.
- Rev up your brain. Like your body, your mind needs exercise to stay fit. Research shows that highly educated people are less likely to suffer memory loss, possibly because keeping the brain active boosts its “cognitive reserve,” allowing it to work efficiently even if some cells are damaged. A wide range of activities provide healthy stimulation: A study of older nuns and priests found that those who spent the most time listening to the radio, reading the newspaper, going to museums and doing puzzles had a 47% lower rate of AD. More brain-boosters: learning a foreign language, taking courses at a community college, and playing games, such as bridge or Scrabble.
- Avoid nicotine use and exposure to secondhand smoke. Nicotine exposure damages the cardiovascular system and reduces oxygen flow to the brain. Magnifying the danger to your most important organ: Cigarette smoke and nicotine contain neurotoxins that increase oxidative stress, inflammation and risk for strokes and smaller bleeds in the brain, all of which are risk factors for dementia. Kicking the habit — and avoiding secondhand smoke — have been shown to lower risk dramatically, while continuing to use nicotine in any form has been shown raise the threat of memory loss by up to 220%!
- Move more. Regular exercise trims your waistline and keeps your wits sharp. Columbia researchers reported that older adults who exercised vigorously 1.3 hours a week were 33% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s, compared to couch potatoes of the same age. But those who combined physical activity, such as jogging, hiking, or biking, with the Mediterranean diet got even greater benefit, whittling their AD risk by 60% over the 5½-year study. In a recent analysis of studies that included nearly 200,000 people, those who exercised the most had a 38% lower risk for cognitive decline.
- Get high blood pressure under control. One in three U.S. adults has high blood pressure, a condition that is more dangerous to arterial health than smoking or obesity. That’s dangerous because high blood pressure is the leading risk factor for stroke, which in turn can lead to vascular dementia. Large studies have shown that high blood pressure in midlife can double risk for Alzheimer’s in old age — and the higher your blood pressure is, the greater the threat. Although high blood pressure is the leading cause of death and disability worldwide, it’s also the most preventable, In addition, as we recently reported, five healthy lifestyle steps can reduce stroke risk by 90%.
- Keep in touch with friends. Get-togethers with friends, neighbors or family can have a surprising payoff, Harvard researchers report. In their study of people in their 50s and 60s, those who were the most socially connected had half the rate of memory loss during the six-year study as those who were socially isolated.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Nearly 40% of Americans — about 100 million people — are obese. Defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher, obesity raises risk for dementia by up to 92%, the Lancet study reported. Excess weight also greatly magnifies risk for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, several forms of cancer and joint disorders. However, the wonderful news is that even modest weight loss can significantly improve your arterial and overall wellness. Try our seven science-backed weight loss tips to get rid of unwanted pounds and boost brain health.
- Keep your blood sugar in check. Abnormal blood sugar levels are the root cause of about 70% of heart attacks and such a powerful risk factor for memory loss that some experts have proposed renaming Alzheimer’s disease “type 3 diabetes.” One explanation is that having type 2 diabetes or prediabetes may reduce flow of blood and essential nutrients to the brain by damaging blood vessels. As we recently reported, one in three adults — 84 million Americans — have prediabetes, and 90% of them are undiagnosed, magnifying their risk for heart attack, stroke and dementia. Talk to your medical provider about getting the most accurate screening test for blood sugar abnormalities: the two-hour oral glucose tolerance test.
- Get depression treated. It’s not yet known if depression contributes to dementia or whether the memory-robbing disorder increases risk for depression. However, the Lancet researchers contend that it’s “biologically plausible” that depression could be a dementia risk because it “affects stress hormones, neuronal growth factors, and hippocampus (brain) volume.” The study also reports that some medications for depression may be protective against dementia, though further study is needed.
- Ask your dental provider to check you for gum disease and oral bacteria. A 2017 study linked periodontal disease (PD) — a chronic infection of the gums that affects the majority of adults over age 30 — to a 70% higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease in people who had the oral infection for ten or more years. A landmark, peer-reviewed BaleDoneen study, published in Postgraduate Medical Journal, was the first to identify high-risk oral bacteria from PD as a contributing cause of cardiovascular disease, the leading killer of Americans, while other studies have shown that taking optimal care of your teeth and gums can add years to your life. Follow our easy, four-step plan to optimize your oral health, which includes asking your dental provider to check for these bacterial villains with available diagnostic tests that measure oral pathogens through DNA analysis, including OralDNA, OraVital and Hain Diagnostics.