These 13 Things Could Make You More Likely to Get Alzheimer's, According to New Study

Plus, four things you can do today to help protect your brain health.

A whopping one in every five Americans 65 or older currently has mild cognitive impairment, and one in every seven has been diagnosed with dementia. If that sounds staggering, get this: By 2050, the number of Americans with dementia is expected to triple, according to the authors of a just-released scientific statement published in the journal Stroke.

Dementia, which is defined by the Alzheimer's Association as a decline in mental aptitude enough that it impacts daily life, is a more costly collection of conditions than heart disease or cancer, with worldwide costs estimated at $818 billion in 2015. (By the way, Alzheimer's is the most common cause of dementia, and is a specific disease. Dementia is a general term for the category of this cognitive impairment.)

To try to prevent decline, reduce stroke risk and more, the study authors suggest that all Americans work with their primary care doctors to keep tabs on 13 factors that have proven links to brain health. These include the American Heart Association's Life's Simple 7, plus six other factors:

  1. Managing blood pressure
  2. Keeping healthy cholesterol levels
  3. Reducing blood sugar
  4. Increasing physical activity
  5. Eating a nutritious, balanced diet
  6. Losing weight, if needed
  7. Not smoking
  8. Preventing or treating symptoms of depression, if present
  9. Reducing social isolation, if present
  10. Limiting alcohol use
  11. Combating sleep disorders, if present
  12. Increasing education and keeping the brain active
  13. Treating hearing loss, if present
Older woman sitting in chair looking out the window
Getty Images / shapecharge

You shouldn't wait until you're 65 to discuss these action items or to introduce healthier habits, suggests one of the statement authors Ronald M. Lazar, Ph.D., FAHA, the Evelyn F. McKnight Endowed Chair for Learning and Memory in Aging and the director of the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine.

"Prevention doesn't start in older age; it exists along the healthcare continuum from pediatrics to adulthood. The evidence in this statement demonstrates that early attention to these factors improves later life outcomes," says Lazar, who is also a professor of neurology and neurobiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "Scientists are learning more about how to prevent cognitive decline before changes to the brain have begun. We have compiled the latest research and found Life's Simple 7 plus other factors like sleep, mental health and education are a more comprehensive lifestyle strategy that optimizes brain health in addition to cardiovascular health."

A sharp, healthy brain is responsible for a wide variety of tasks, all of which are crucial to thrive and maneuver independently through the world:

  • Memory
  • Thinking
  • Reasoning
  • Communication
  • Problem solving

"Many people think of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and other risk factors as affecting only heart health, yet these very same risk factors affect our brain health. Patients might be more likely to pay attention to the importance of addressing modifiable risk factors if they understood the links," Lazar says. "I've given lectures, and what people tell me is, the one thing they do not want to lose during the course of their lives is their mind."

So at your next checkup, present your doctor with this list and ask him or her if you can test or talk through all of these important brain-impacting elements. But you need not wait until then to start making mental (and physical!) wellness a priority.

Based on the 13-item checklist, consider this your brain-boosting to-do—all of which you can start today:

  • Eat. Consume a low-sodium, well-balanced and colorful diet, such as the MIND diet. (Bonus: consuming a healthy diet can reduce symptoms of depression in as little as 3 weeks.)
  • Move. Exercise at least 150 minutes a week in whatever form you enjoy.
  • Connect. Though in-person hangouts may be put on hold right now, make time to schedule calls, virtual catch-up sessions or safely distant outdoor gatherings with friends and family.
  • Ease up. Cut back or avoid alcohol—stick to one drink per day or fewer—and work on kicking that smoking habit if you currently do. The CDC has a guide to smoking cessation resources here.
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