Even if you have no family history of dementia, there’s a good chance you’re unknowingly putting yourself at risk for developing the condition down the road. Interestingly, it’s more of a condition than a specific disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. It refers to a collection of symptoms related with cognitive decline, including memory loss and impaired judgment.
Alzheimer’s is the type of dementia you can probably recall, but it’s not the only type. It’s not a natural part of the aging cycle, either. Dementia is caused by damage to the brain cells, which can happen in a number of different ways. Here are 10 things you may be doing to increase your dementia risk.
1. Taking certain types of medicine
Experts link certain prescription and over-the-counter medications with increased dementia rates. Anticholinergic drugs, which many adults use for seasonal allergies or overactive bladder, for example, were singled out by a report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Benadryl and Tylenol PM users, beware.
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2. Living near busy roads
You don’t have to be stuck in traffic to have it slowly kill you. A recent study published in The Lancet found an increase in dementia risk for folks who live close to areas with heavy traffic. Why? High levels of air pollution and noise can eat away at the brain’s connective tissues. Still, it’s an association, not necessarily a cause.
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3. Being a generally unhealthy person
This is pretty broad — and if you’re pretty broad yourself, it can mean an increased risk of neurodegenerative disease. People who have diabetes, high blood pressure, and who are obese all have higher rates of dementia. But the pendulum also swings the other way. Some research from The Lancet shows people who are underweight can increase their risk by up to 34%. Again, it’s an association, so we’ll need more research.
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4. Smoking cigarettes
Smoking won’t just lead to lung cancer and emphysema. It can also affect your brain in a serious way. In a study found in Archives of Internal Medicine, out of over 21,000 people involved, smokers were found to have higher rates of both dementia and Alzheimer’s compared to non-smokers.
Next: Step away from the bar cart.
5. Drinking too much alcohol
It’s not just smoking that could do you in. Research ties alcohol consumption to declines in cognitive health, too. The Alzheimer’s Association explains a disorder called Korsakoff syndrome, which is a chronic lack of vitamin B-1 typically caused by excess drinking. This eventually leads to brain issues, including dementia. The good news: Proper treatment can improve outcomes.
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6. Not seeking treatment for depression
A lot of people struggle with depression, which can lead to cognitive degeneration if you don’t properly treat it. The Journal of the Neurological Sciences explains it has to do with changes to the white matter, or physical structures in our brain, over time. So, if you deal with depression, it’s best to get professional help. Treating your depression now will up your chances of staving off dementia in the future.
effects of a healthy set of genes.” Simply put, physical inactivity will cause your brain tissues to degenerate, leading to an increased risk of dementia.
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7. Not exercising your brain
You can think of your brain as a muscle. If you don’t exercise it, it’ll atrophy. As strange as it sounds, there’s evidence that not using your brain can actually increase dementia risk. In fact, researchers from the University of Cambridge discovered individuals with less education have higher rates of dementia than those with more schooling.
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8. Being a couch potato
Your mother probably told you video games and television can rot your brain. As it turns out, your mom may have been right (as she so often was). There is actual evidence that living like a sloth — or a couch potato, as we often say — can lead to serious problems. In fact, the more advanced your couch potato level, the higher your risk of dementia.
Findings from a new study by McMaster University in Ontario show couch potatoes are hurting their brains. Though some people are born with an elevated risk factor for dementia, inactivity can boost the risk for those with no genetic predisposition. Jennifer Heisz, assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University and co-author of the study, said in a press release, “The important message here is that being inactive may completely negate the protective
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9. Treating your heartburn with medication
Struggling with acid reflux? Here’s a heads up: Research links some heartburn medication to dementia. One large study found in The JAMA Network said medicines with proton pump inhibitors, like Prilosec and Prevacid, are tied to increased degenerative disease risks. So, if you’re on one of these, you may want to discuss possible side effects the medication could have in the future.
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10. Spending too much time inside
Research confirms a link between vitamin D deficiency and dementia. Individuals with severe deficiencies may actually double their risk, according to a study from the University of Exeter. An easy solution? Get outside in the sun more, and bolster your diet with more fish and vitamin D-rich foods. Keep in mind, though, that it’s still imperative to protect yourself from the sun’s damaging rays.
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11. Try the Mediterranean diet
Do as the Greeks do, and eat meals that involve whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, olive oil, and other healthy fats. Research suggests this may be one of the best ways to fight the degeneration of the brain. And it’s a pretty delicious way to live.
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12. Learn something new
Take a formal class or teach yourself a new skill at home. Either way it will strengthen the networks within your brain as NPR reports. Try knitting, woodworking, or a new computer program. As long as you focus on coordination and connecting different parts of your brain through the learning process, you’re on the right track.
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13. Get enough z’s
Multiple studies link a lack of REM sleep to an increased risk of dementia. So determine how much sleep you need (most adults need about eight hours), set an alarm to remind yourself when its almost time for bed, and start your bedtime routine.
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14. Socialize with others
Develop and maintain relationships with your loved ones. Brains need to connect to others, so communicate with friends and meet new people. Oh, and texting doesn’t count. Even introverts can socialize in a way that feels natural; join a club or volunteer and you’ll create a more structured way to develop relationships.
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15. Manage your stress
A study by the University of Toronto found that chronic stress is “associated with structural degeneration and impaired functioning of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex.” These areas of the brain are responsible for preventing dementia. So learn to manage your stress in healthy ways, like exercising and journaling, rather than relying on poor habits. Relieving stress by smoking, drinking, or staying inside will just compound your risk of dementia.
Additional reporting by Julie Peirano and Ali Harrison.