An abundance of evidence links certain lifestyle habits with a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer's disease (AD) and other types of dementia.Although it's too early to claim these factors can prevent dementia, they can help keep your brain healthy. 

Three things you can do now to lower your risk of cognitive decline are: (1) move your body with physical activity; (2) eat a combination of foods associated with heart and brain health; and (3) keep your brain active through lifelong learning and social activities.

1. Move Your Body.

Strong and consistent data shows individuals who are physically active are less likely to experience a decline in mental function and have a lower risk of developing dementia.1,2 

Getting your heartrate up through exercise increases blood flow and oxygen to your brain. This provides a host of benefits, such as boosting brain-protective chemicals and preserving connections in the brain that decline with aging.2,3  

Although brain size naturally decreases with aging, research shows that exercise helps reverse that process – at any age.4,5 One study found that physical activity builds measurable increases in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that creates and stores memories.5 

To reap the benefits of exercise, aim for 150 minutes a week. The key is to increase your heartrate. Swimming, jogging, biking, dancing, vigorous walking, and other aerobic exercise several times a week can help with the following:

  1. Keep thinking, reasoning, and learning skills sharp for healthy individuals2,3,6 
  2. Slow down changes in memory, reasoning, judgment, and thinking skills (cognitive function) for people with mild Alzheimer's disease or mild cognitive impairment (MCI)1,2,7 
  3. Delay the onset of dementia for individuals at risk of developing the disease or slow the progress of the disease1-3, 7,8 
  4. Increase the size of the part of the brain that's associated with memory formation (hippocampus)5

2. Eat the Mediterranean, Dash, or MIND Diet

Studies indicate that eating the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet, or the MIND diet reduces the risk of developing dementia.9-11,14 Although the Mediterranean and DASH diets were formulated to help manage other health conditions, they are also good for the brain. 

The Mediterranean diet, touted for its heart-health benefits, is rich in fruits, vegetables, olive oil, legumes, whole grains, and fish. (Learn more about the Mediterranean diet.)

The DASH diet – which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension – is designed to treat or prevent high blood pressure (hypertension). It focuses on eating foods that are rich in potassium, calcium, and magnesium, and puts limits on sodium, saturated fat, and added sugars. (Learn more about the DASH diet.)

The MIND diet, short for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, combines specific elements of the Mediterranean and DASH diets. It focuses on eating natural plant-based foods while limiting red meat, saturated fat, and sweets. (Learn more about the MIND diet.) 

Researchers looked at whether following a Mediterranean diet, the DASH, or the MIND diet could reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease. The results showed that people who strictly followed any of the three diets had a lower risk of developing Alzheimer's.10,12 In addition, adopting several aspects of the MIND diet, such as eating two vegetable servings daily, two berry servings weekly, and one fish meal weekly, lowered the risk of Alzheimer's disease.10 

Following one of these three diets might: 

  1. Slow cognitive decline in older adults13,14  
  2. Reduce the risk of mild cognitive impairment – a   transitional stage between the cognitive decline of normal aging and the more-serious memory problems caused by dementia or Alzheimer's disease13,14  
  3. Reduce the risk of MCI progressing to dementia15 

It's presently unclear which parts of each diet benefit brain function. Researchers speculate that eating healthy foods improves cholesterol and blood sugar levels, as well as overall blood vessel health, which, in turn, reduces the risk of MCI and dementia.15 

Another theory suggests that following a Mediterranean diet prevents the brain tissue loss associated with Alzheimer's disease.11 Some research shows that individuals who carry the apolipoprotein E (APOE4) gene – which increases Alzheimer's risk – who also eat a moderate amount of seafood, had fewer Alzheimer's-related changes in their brains.16

 Regardless, eating a healthy diet is important to staying mentally fit.

3. Keep Your Brain Active and Be Social

Research indicates that lifelong participation in mentally and socially stimulating activities is associated with a reduced risk of dementia.17,18 Activities like reading, playing board games, creating art, playing an instrument, participating in events, and engaging in other pursuits that require mental and social involvement help preserve thinking skills.18,19 

Mayo Clinic researchers found that engaging in mentally stimulating activities, even late in life, protects against new-onset mild cognitive impairment.18 The study found that cognitively normal individuals 70 or older who engaged in computer use, craft activities, social activities, and playing games had a decreased risk of developing MCI. The study followed 1,929 cognitively normal participants for four years. After adjusting for sex, age, and educational level, the risk of new-onset MCI decreased by 30 percent with computer use, 28 percent with craft activities, 23 percent with social activities, and 22 percent with playing games. 

Having a hobby is a key component of healthy aging and is associated with lower rates of cognitive decline.19-21 The adult brain is constantly changing. Referred to as neuroplasticity, the brain creates new neural pathways and alters existing ones to adapt to new experiences, to learn information, and to create memories.22 Learning a new hobby, or dusting off an old one, can keep your brain active and help it stay healthy. 

Read more about the benefits of a hobby here.

Research shows that older individuals who participate in mentally and socially engaging activities: 

  1. Are less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease and other dementias19,23 
  2. Have fewer cognitive complaints and better memory retention, comprehension, creativity, and problem-solving abilities19,23    
  3. Are happier and less depressed.21 One study showed that hobbies are linked to decreased symptoms of depression and a 30-percent lower risk for developing depression.24 This is significant because depression is common in older adults and associated with an increased risk of cognitive impairment and dementia.25

There's no proven way to prevent Alzheimer's and other dementias. Until then, do your brain a favor and eat well, read a book, play a game, paint a picture, join a group activity, and exercise. 

Want to read more about memory and cognitive function? Thorne’s Take 5 magazine has a lot of options.


References

  1. Livingston G, Huntley J, Sommerlad A, et al. Dementia prevention, intervention, and care: 2020 report of the Lancet Commission. Lancet 2020;396(10248):413-446.
  2. Nuzum H, Stickel A, Corona M, et al. Potential benefits of physical activity in MCI and dementia. Behav Neurol 2020 Feb 12;2020.7807856
  3. Can Alzheimer's disease be prevented? Alzheimer's Association. https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/research_progress/prevention. [Accessed Oct. 1, 2021.]
  4. O'Shea A, Cohen R, Porges E, et al. Cognitive aging and the hippocampus in older adults. Front Aging Neurosci 2016;8:298.  
  5. Erickson K, Voss M, Prakash R, et al. Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2011;108(7):3017-3022.
  6. Health benefits of physical activity for adults. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adults/health-benefits-of-physical-activity-for-adults.html. [Accessed Oct. 1, 2021.]
  7. Bliss E, Wong R, Howe P, Mills D. Benefits of exercise training on cerebrovascular and cognitive function in ageing. J Cereb Blood Flow Metab 2021;41(3):447-470. 
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  10. Morris M, Tangney C, Wang Y, et al. MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimers Dement 2015;11(9):1007-1014.  
  11. Anastasiou C, Yannakoulia M, Kosmidis M, et al. Mediterranean diet and cognitive health: initial results from the Hellenic longitudinal investigation of ageing and diet. PLOS One 2017;12(8):e0182048.
  12. Rakesh G, Szabo S, Alexopoulos G, Zannas A. Strategies for dementia prevention: latest evidence and implications. Ther Adv Chronic Dis 2017;8(8-9):121-136. 
  13. Press D, Alexander M. Prevention of dementia. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. [Accessed Oct 8, 2021.]
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  15. Cooper C, Sommerlad A, Lyketsos C, Livingston G. Modifiable predictors of dementia in mild cognitive impairment: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Am J Psychiatry 2015;172(4):323-334. 
  16. Morris M, Brockman J, Schneider J, et al. Association of seafood consumption, brain mercury level, and APOE ε4 status with brain neuropathology in older adults. JAMA 2016;315:489.
  17. Jankovic J, Mazziotta J, Pomeroy S, Newman N. Alzheimer's disease and other dementias. In: Bradley and Daroff's Neurology in Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders Elsevier; 2022. https://www.clinicalkey.com. [Accessed Oct. 4, 2021.]
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  19. National Institute of Aging. Participating in activity you enjoy. www.nia.nih.gov/health/participating-activities-you-enjoy. [Accessed Oct. 9, 2021]
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