Plus, tips for boosting your brain health.

Isadora Baum
June 02, 2021
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Unfortunately, with age the brain's gray matter starts to decrease in volume, and this could be why you may find it harder to remember certain stories, people or tasks. And while a decline in memory retention and focus is somewhat inevitable as you get older, it becomes more pronounced in those with early signs of dementia.

"Dementia is a general term to refer to neurodegenerative diseases that cause an impairment in cognitive function that interferes with day-to-day living, as it affects memory, decision-making, thinking and social abilities," says Dr. Jaydeep Tripathy, a primary care physician at Doctor Spring who is also board-certified in internal medicine.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, "Dementia is caused by damage to brain cells. This damage interferes with the ability of brain cells to communicate with each other. When brain cells cannot communicate normally, thinking, behavior and feelings can be affected." Types of dementia can include Alzheimer's, Huntington's, Creutzfeldt-Jakob and more.

Tripathy says that a gradual decrease of cognitive function is common as we get older, but dementia isn't as common. "Other than memory loss, the other symptoms of dementia include personality changes, confusion, moodiness or agitation, and problems with cognitive and physical function," he explains.

While some things, such as age, family history, genetics and injury can increase your dementia risk, there are certain lifestyle habits that can also make you more likely to get the disease. Here are some sneaky things to avoid to reduce your overall dementia risk.

paper cut out of a woman drinking a glass of wine on a designed background
Credit: getty Images / Bernd Friedel / EyeEm

Things That Can Increase Dementia Risk

1. You Skimp on Sleep

"Lack of sleep is dangerous because it doesn't give our organs, including our brain, time to rest and recuperate, and it could lead to poor memory and lower energy, attention and motivation," Tripathy says.

Unfortunately, people with poor sleep quality, caused by problems like insomnia or sleep apnea, have a higher risk of developing dementia. A study published in the journal Nature found that people who sleep for a shorter duration are more likely to develop dementia. The Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get 7 to 9 hours of shut-eye per night. (Need a little help counting sheep? Here are four ways to get a better night's sleep, according to an expert.)

2. Your Diet Could Use Some Improvement

There is a link between poor diet and cognitive diseases, where eating a diet high in saturated fats and refined sugars can increase your risk of developing such dementia.

"The foods we eat greatly impact our brain function, as the gut microbiome is also directly connected to our brain microbiome, so keep in mind that what we put in our stomachs also gets absorbed by our brain," Tripathy says.

A recent study showed that the Mediterranean diet can also help reduce dementia risk, as well as the buildup of sticky amyloid plaques and tau tangles which are key hallmarks of Alzheimer's disease. Ditto for the MIND Diet, which is an eating plan that combines principles from the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet to boost overall brain health.

For optimal brain health, try limiting inflammatory foods such as red meat, pastries and fast food and eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish and healthy fats.

3. You're in Isolation

Quarantine due to the pandemic has shown that isolation can be mentally draining and leave you feeling more withdrawn and sad than usual. "Not having enough interaction with other people can also lead to dementia," Tripathy says.

A study published in The Journals of Gerontology found that social isolation was a risk factor for diminished brain function because of the positive effects socialization can have on a happy and mentally alert brain. Aim to schedule social engagements throughout the week, whether IRL or virtual.

4. You're Not Stimulating Your Brain

Another major factor considered for healthy brain function is mental stimulation, which means using and exercising your brain every day. "Keeping the brain active prevents death of brain cells that are not being used," Tripathy says. "Brain exercises can include simple puzzles, crosswords, mind games like chess and Rubik's Cube, or even simply reading the newspaper or a magazine," Tripathy adds. Try switching things up by teaching yourself a new hobby, like knitting, painting or piano.

5. You Lead a Sedentary Lifestyle

Lack of physical activity can also increase your risk for dementia. "With physical inactivity, you are at risk of developing hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, all of which are connected to dementia," Tripathy says.

When you move, you boost circulation and blood flow. "Poor circulation prevents ample oxygen from reaching your brain, which is essential for proper function," Tripathy explains. Constricted blood vessels from poor health can also affect the nerves in the brain, leading to greater risk of dementia.

"Adding a mix of cardiovascular exercise (like fast walking, jogging or high-intensity interval training) that raises your heart rate has been shown to be one of the most effective methods to reduce your risk for Alzheimer's and other dementias," says Dr. Richard Isaacson, a member of the Women's Alzheimer's Movement Scientific Advisory Council. Even just walking a few times a week can reduce your risk of dementia, according to a new study.

"Also, strength training at least twice a week helps to maintain muscle mass and boost metabolism," Isaacson says. This also helps lower risk of osteoporosis, in addition to protecting your brain.

6. You Drink Alcohol in Excess

If you are drinking alcohol every day or in excessive quantities (think: binge drinking), such consumption can cause brain atrophy and trigger early-onset memory loss. "Moderate drinking is safe but drinking too much for too long can lead to Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, a rare form of memory loss," Tripathy says.

It's OK to have a glass of wine every night, but make sure to keep your booze to a minimum for the best brain and health benefits (FYI, here's how much alcohol you should be drinking.)

7. You're a Woman

While this isn't a "cause," it is a factor to consider. "Unfortunately, being a woman significantly increases your chances of developing Alzheimer's, as of the nearly 6 million people impacted by this disease, two-thirds of them are women," says Isaacson. The Women's Alzheimer's Movement is combating this imbalance with critical research, funding, education and awareness-building activities all designed to determine why the female brain is more at risk and to search for a cure.