While this research paints a promising picture about our collective brain health, dementia is still quite common. Discover 10 lifestyle shifts you can start today to keep your brain sharp throughout the lifespan.
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How often do you think of how much of a gift it is to be able to remember the random items you need to add to your basket at the supermarket without a list? Or the fact that you can still sing along to every lyric from Lizzo's first album? Or how about the memories of your last birthday, Thanksgiving—or even recalling the names of the people who joined you around the table?

For a sizable portion of Americans—for those with dementia—many or all of those tasks are a serious challenge. Three weeks ago, a new study estimated that 1 in 10 American seniors has dementia, and another 22% have mild cognitive impairment (which can progress into full-blown dementia).

an illustration of a head with flowers and a light bulb coming out of it
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But thanks to new research published November 7, 2022, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), we might be seeing a slightly more optimistic trend in terms of our collective brain health. Dementia rates have actually been decreasing among those 65 and over, falling from 12.2% of the population in 2000 to just 8.5% in 2016.

Find out why these two studies can both be true at the same time, plus study up about how to stay sharp and be part of that positive, cognitively sharp trend.

What This New Brain Health Report Found

To land at this conclusion, researchers tapped into data from 21,000 people who took part in the Health and Retirement Study, a large, population-representative nationwide survey that's been performed for 20 years. After crunching the numbers, the researchers discovered that the age-adjusted prevalence of dementia for people 65 and over in 2000 was slightly over 12%. Slightly more than 1 in 10 American older adults had dementia at that time. By 2016, this rate had fallen to 8.5%, representing a decrease of 3.7 percentage points or about 30%.

The decline in dementia rates appeared to be particularly strong between 2000 and 2004, the scientists note, and among Black men. Dementia prevalence fell by 7% among Black men compared to a 3% decrease among those who completed the survey and marked that they were white men.

Although the rate of dementia among women participants also fell between 2000 and 2016—from 13.6% to just below 10%—women overall continue to clock in with higher rates of dementia than men (whose rates fell from about 10% to 7%). The researchers hypothesize this disparity might be related to the way estrogen impacts the brain during menopause, although more research is needed.

Higher amounts of overall education and lower rates of smoking across the U.S. may be a factor in this collective decrease in dementia prevalence, but it's tough to pinpoint the exact cause for dementia. In most cases, it's a melting pot of risk factors, and can include high blood pressure, inactivity, a diet low in whole foods, poor sleep and more.

So how can this study hint at an overall decrease, while that earlier study—and CDC data, which estimates that 5 million adults had dementia in 2014, and predicts that this will grow to about 14 million by 2060—both be true?

Because we're living longer. There's a greater number of Americans who are living to old age than in generations past (which is great news!), which means that portion of seniors now makes up a larger part of our overall American population.

How to Reduce Your Risk for Dementia

Regardless of the exact number of people with dementia or the prevalence percentage, the most important thing to take away from this story is that part of your dementia risk is within your control. Genetic factors certainly affect our brain health—and our total chronic disease risk—but our daily habits play a large role as well.

Since it's impossible to rewrite our family history, and scientists are still searching for a cure for dementia, it's wise to focus on modifiable risk factors, or the lifestyle habits that are within our control and have been proven to be related to brain health.

According to the Alzheimer's Association's risk reduction and prevention guides, here are 10 healthy strategies that can help boost your brain:

  1. Eat a nutritious, well-balanced diet that's low in refined carbs and contains enough dietary fiber (the DASH diet, the Mediterranean diet and the MIND diet are all smart choices)
  2. Manage your blood pressure
  3. Keep tabs on your cholesterol levels
  4. Aim for a stable blood sugar range
  5. Move your body
  6. Don't smoke, and talk to your doctor about help with quitting if you do
  7. Try to stay socially connected
  8. Limit alcohol use
  9. Shoot for 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night
  10. Challenge the brain through puzzles, games, reading, music or other hobbies

The Bottom Line

A new report about Americans' brain health found that the percentage of people 65 and over with dementia has declined by about one-third. However, since more Americans are living longer, the total number of those living with cognitive challenges is higher than in decades past. Certain groups, including those who completed the survey marked as women, showed less of a decrease in rates than those who responded as men.

No matter your gender identity or genetics, integrating healthy lifestyle habits can help reduce your risk for dementia and bolster your brainpower.