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Everyday Habits That Might Lead to Dementia Say Experts

Several habits might be increasing your risk factor for dementia.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Dementia is a common and serious brain disorder that mostly affects people over the age of 65 and symptoms include issues with memory, getting lost in a familiar place, impaired ability to make good judgment decisions and more. The condition is caused by damage to brain cells and while there are several factors that increase the chance of getting dementia like age, severe head injury and Parkinson's disease, there are ways to help lower the risk. Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with  Dr. Tomi Mitchell, a Board-Certified Family Physician with Holistic Wellness Strategies who shares everyday habits that could lead to dementia. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


What to Know About Dementia

older man with dementia talking to doctor
Shutterstock / Robert Kneschke

Dr. Mitchell explains, "Dementia is a broad category of brain diseases that cause a long-term and often gradual decrease in the ability to think and remember. For example, a person with dementia may have trouble remembering recent events, events from the person's past, or the names of people or places. They may also have difficulty with abstract concepts like time or numbers. The symptoms of dementia vary from person to person and can change over time. Early signs of dementia are often subtle and can be easily mistaken for normal aging. However, as the disease progresses, the symptoms become more pronounced and can eventually interfere with daily activities. No one test can diagnose dementia, and the diagnosis is usually made based on a combination of medical history, physical examination, cognitive testing, and brain imaging. There is currently no cure for dementia, but treatments available can help manage the symptoms and improve quality of life."


Having Healthy Lifestyle Choices Makes a Difference

mature couple jogging outdoors

Dr. Mitchell tells us, "Dementia is a debilitating condition that can rob people of their memories, independence, and communication ability. According to the Alzheimer's Association, more than 5 million Americans are currently living with dementia, and that number is expected to increase to nearly 14 million by 2050. Fortunately, there are choices that you can make now that will reduce your chance of having dementia. One of the most important things you can do is to stay physically active. Exercise helps to keep your brain healthy and improve blood flow to the brain. It would help if you also aimed to eat a healthy diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. These nutrient-rich foods help to protect the brain from damage. Finally, it would help if you made an effort to socialize and stay engaged with the world around you. Stimulating your mind helps to keep it sharp and reduce your risk of developing dementia."



Hand stubbed out cigarette in a transparent ashtray on wooden table

"People who smoke cigarettes are more likely to develop dementia than those who don't smoke," says Dr. Mitchell. "It's not clear exactly how smoking increases the risk, but it may be due to the effect of smoking on the brain. Smoking damages blood vessels and reduces blood flow to the brain. This can lead to a build-up of plaques and tangles in the brain, characteristic of Alzheimer's disease. Cigarette smoke also contains harmful chemicals that can damage brain cells. In addition, smoking increases levels of inflammation in the body, which has been linked to dementia. If you're concerned about your risk of dementia, quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do to protect your brain health."


Poor Diet

woman eating pizza in bed
Shutterstock / Doucefleur

According to Dr. Mitchell, "Poor diet is a risk factor for dementia, especially for those who are already at risk for the condition. There are several ways that a poor diet can increase the risk of dementia. First, a poor diet can lead to deficiencies in essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. These deficiencies can damage the brain and lead to cognitive decline. Second, a poor diet can lead to chronic inflammation, linked to cognitive decline and dementia. Finally, poor diet is often associated with other risk factors for dementia, such as obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes. While there is no sure way to prevent dementia, eating a healthy diet is one of the best ways to reduce your risk.

A diet high in sugar and processed foods has been linked to an increased risk of dementia. Eating a healthy, balanced diet is essential for maintaining cognitive function."


Lack of Exercise

Tired senior hispanic man sleeping on dark blue couch, taking afternoon nap at the living room

Dr. Mitchell shares, "A lack of exercise is a significant risk factor for developing dementia. There are several possible explanations for why exercise reduces the risk of dementia. Physical activity increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels, a protein that promotes neuron growth and protects existing nerve cells from damage. Exercise also helps improve blood flow and reduce inflammation throughout the body, which is essential for maintaining cognitive health. Additionally, exercise has been shown to reduce the risk of other conditions that can lead to dementia, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

With this new information, it is clear that there are many reasons to make exercise a part of your everyday routine. Even if you are not at risk for dementia, regular physical activity can provide numerous other benefits for your health and well-being. So get up and move—your brain will thank you for it!"


Limited Social Interaction


"Social interaction plays an essential role in cognitive health," Dr. Mitchell emphasizes. "Those who have little social interaction are at a higher risk of developing dementia. One theory is that social interaction helps to keep the mind active and engaged. Those who interact with others regularly are more likely to engage in mentally stimulating activities, such as conversation, problem-solving, and card games. This stimulation helps to keep the brain active and can delay the onset of dementia. In addition, social interaction can help to reduce stress levels. High levels of stress have been linked to an increased risk of dementia. By interacting with others, we release feel-good hormones like oxytocin, which help to reduce stress and improve our overall mood. In this way, social interaction can help to protect the brain from the damaging effects of chronic stress."


Alcohol Abuse

drinking alcohol

Dr. Mitchell states, "Alcohol consumption is a risk factor for developing dementia. Dementia is an umbrella term for symptoms that result in impaired cognitive function, such as memory loss and difficulty with problem-solving and executive function. While it is known that heavy alcohol consumption can lead to brain damage and cognitive decline, research has also shown that even moderate alcohol intake can increase your risk of developing dementia. One theory is that alcohol damages the hippocampus, a vital area of the brain involved in memory formation. Alcohol also interferes with the body's ability to absorb thiamine, which is essential for nerve function. This can lead to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which can cause confusion, memory problems, and vision changes.

Additionally, alcohol increases inflammation throughout the body, including in the brain. This inflammation can contribute to cognitive decline and dementia. Therefore, it is essential to be aware of the risks associated with alcohol consumption, especially as you age. In addition, heavy drinking should be avoided, and even moderate drinking should be limited to reduce your risk of dementia. Alcohol abuse has been linked to an increased risk of dementia, so it's important to drink in moderation."

Dr. Mitchell says this "doesn't constitute medical advice and by no means are these answers meant to be comprehensive. Rather, it's to encourage discussions about health choices."

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather