Surprising Ways You’re Increasing Your Dementia Risk

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

cold medicines

An increased risk of dementia relates to certain medications according to some studies. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

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.

Next: Traffic is more than an inconvenience.

2. Living near busy roads

Freeway Traffic

This is more of an association than anything else, but it’s still interesting. | Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

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.

Next: Another reason to step on the scale

3. Being a generally unhealthy person

An obese man measuring around his stomach

Those who are overweight are more likely to develop dementia. | iStock.com

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.

Next: Don’t puff, just pass.

4. Smoking cigarettes

A no smoking sign

If you’re a smoker, consider this another reason to quit. | Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

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

Man drinking beer

Too much booze could lead to a type of dementia. | George Marks/Getty Images

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.

Next: Don’t ignore the blues.

6. Not seeking treatment for depression

A depressed man in a metro tunnel

People with depression are more likely to deal with cognitive decline. | iStock.com

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.

Next: Break out the crossword puzzles.

7. Not exercising your brain

School notebooks in variety of colors

Challenging yourself mentally may reduce your risk. | iStock.com

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.

Next: A dangerous kind of potato

8. Being a couch potato

Fat guy sleeping on the couch

Not surprisingly, being overtly lazy is bad for your brain. | iStock.com/txking

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

Next: Fight through the burn.

9. Treating your heartburn with medication

close-up of a man clutching his chest

Your heartburn medication could be doing more harm than good. | iStock.com

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.

Next: Don’t hide from the elements.

10. Spending too much time inside

Collection of various supplements and vitamins

Those who don’t get enough vitamin D are putting themselves at risk. | iStock.com

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.

Next: Prevent dementia by supporting your brain health.

11. Try the Mediterranean diet

olives next to olive oil on a table

Olives and olive oil | iStock.com

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.

Next: Head back to school

12. Learn something new

Tutor Using Learning Aids To Help Student

Never stop learning new things | iStock.com/monkeybusinessimages

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.

Next: Hit the hay in the name of health.

13. Get enough z’s

A mature couple sleeps

Make sure to get enough sleep every night. | Source: iStock

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.

Next: Be a social butterfly.

14. Socialize with others

Women enjoy dinner together

Ditch social media and get some face-time. | monkeybusinessimages/ iStock / Getty Images Plus

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.

Next: Relax your way to brain health.

15. Manage your stress

Woman journals

Stop throughout the day and journal to manage stress. | iStock.com/monkeybusinessimages

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.

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