Plus, the No. 1 diet that can amplify the brain-boosting impact.
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illustration of a pedometer app and a brain
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Aging and genetics are the biggest risk factors for dementia, according to the U.K. nonprofit Alzheimer's Society. Still, little lifestyle habits can make a big difference as well, a growing body of research suggests.

Admittedly, cognitive decline might seem like a far-off worry. But the habits you have today can definitely impact your risk level later on in life, studies prove. Everything from not smoking to eating fewer refined carbs and more dietary fiber to sleeping seven to nine hours and keeping your brain engaged can reduce risk for cognitive decline that's strong enough to impact daily living (aka dementia).

Currently, 1 in 9 American adults over age 65 have Alzheimer's disease (one of the main causes of dementia). By 2050, when those who were born in 1985 will be 65, rates of Americans living with dementia are expected to more than double, the Alzheimer's Association predicts.

One invigorating way to step up your brain support, according to a study published September 6 in the journal JAMA Neurology: Walking. Individuals who lace up their sneakers and walk for 9,800 steps per day are half as likely to develop dementia as their inactive peers. Even walking just 3,800 steps each day (about 2 miles) can decrease dementia risk by 25%.

Read on for more details about why walking might boost your brainpower, plus study up on a diet strategy that can help you feed your brain and decrease your risk for dementia even more.

What This Brain Health Study Found

To come to this conclusion, scientists from Australia and Denmark dove into data from the UK Biobank, a database of in-depth health information from about 500,000 U.K. residents. For this study, they selected 78,430 participants; 44.7% male and 55.3% female, with an average age of 61 at the beginning of the research. All were heart-disease- and dementia-free at the outset.

Rather than using self-reported activity levels, each person wore an accelerometer (to measure the rate of movement) 24 hours per day and 7 days each week to track their physical activity levels. The scientists controlled for other variables including age, sex, race, socioeconomic status, smoking and diet, and found that 866 people, about 1%, had developed dementia by the time of the follow-up around 7 years later.

Both the total step quantity and the speed of the steps affected dementia risk, they found. The biggest benefit—about 50% lower dementia risk—was correlated with about 9,800 steps (approximately 5 miles) per day. Anything more didn't further impact risk level. If you haven't yet invested in a pair of walking shoes and that sounds too daunting, take heart: Racking up even less than half as many steps can still make a significant difference. Individuals who walked 3,826 steps each day reduced dementia risk by 25%. The best pace? More than 40 steps per minute, which is a doable less than 2 miles per hour.

This is one of many studies that have found that staying in motion as you get older, even for a mere 10 minutes daily, can help your brain and body age at a slower pace. Regular exercise had a bigger impact on dementia risk than all of the following factors, according to an Alzheimer's Society review of 11 studies:

  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Maintaining a "healthy" body weight
  • Consuming a moderate amount of alcohol (or less)
  • Not smoking

More research is needed to explain exactly why movement is so important for your mind. That said, experts believe that it might be due to the way that exercise—including walking—can improve blood flow to the brain.

The Best Diet for Your Brain Can Also Halve Your Dementia Risk

That said, eating a healthy diet can most certainly affect cognition. After being counseled on and told to try the MIND diet for 4½ years, those who stuck to the program most closely had 53% lower risk for Alzheimer's disease compared to those who skewed the most away from the MIND diet, according to a September 2015 study in the Alzheimer's Association journal Alzheimer's & Dementia.

ICYMI, the MIND diet is an eating style that recommends consuming the following foods, according to the National Institute on Aging:

  • Leafy green vegetables: 6 servings per week
  • Other vegetables: 1 serving per day
  • Berries: 2 servings per week
  • Whole grains: 3 servings per day
  • Fish: 1 serving per week
  • Poultry: 2 servings per week
  • Beans: 3 servings per week
  • Nuts: 5 servings per week
  • Wine: 1 glass per day (or less)
  • Olive oil: In place of saturated fats

The worst foods for those following the MIND diet, or what to avoid: Red meat, added sugar, cheese, butter, margarine and fried foods.

The Bottom Line

Walking about 9,800 steps each day can slash dementia risk, this new brain-health study found—as can eating a brain-smart diet. So lace up those sneakers and stock up on these 6 dietitian-approved foods you should be eating every day for better brain health; your mind and muscles will be better for it.