You might be surprised to learn that dementia usually isn’t directly caused by genetics. The likelihood of developing dementia depends on multiple factors such as age, past medical history, lifestyle, and genes – and that there are things you can do to help lower your risk.
Yes, genes can play a direct role in developing rare causes of dementia, but overall, multiple factors determine whether a person will develop dementia.
Dementia is an umbrella term that refers to any ongoing memory impairment that affects daily function. Most often, when people say dementia, they are likely referring to Alzheimer’s, which is just one cause — but it’s also the most common, responsible for between 60 percent and 70 percent of dementia cases.
Whether or not someone will be diagnosed with dementia is largely determined by three factors:
- Past medical history
The good news is that anyone can lower their risk largely by making healthy lifestyle shifts. These include:
We all know smoking poses health risks, but you may not realize that it increases the likelihood of dementia. Smoking causes blood vessels to narrow, which, in turn, increases blood pressure. Even if you have been a smoker for decades, it’s never too late to quit, as quitting lowers risk for many diagnoses, dementia included.
Control Your Blood Pressure
High cholesterol and high blood pressure will increase the risk of dementia. To combat high blood pressure, eat a balanced diet with plenty of fresh vegetables and maintain an active lifestyle. Strive to exercise 30 minutes a day, five times a week. Exercise can be almost any movement, including tai chi, walking, water aerobics, yoga and seated yoga, aerobics or whatever else you enjoy that keeps you active.
Puzzles offer a fun way to keep your mind active. Sudoku, crossword and jigsaw puzzles all keep the brain engaged. Jigsaw puzzles are especially helpful in strengthening short-term memory. Plus, there’s a therapeutic, calming benefit to jigsaw puzzles. People tend to find that they help relieve stress.
Take Up a Hobby
Playing an instrument, learning a foreign language and even reading all help with brain health. Board games, card games and video games are great choices as well, requiring strategic thinking and sharpening reflexes.
Be Socially Active
Joining clubs, whether it is to play bridge, read books, talk about gardening or sing in a choir all keep the brain active. The more we interact with others, the more we are relying on memory and speech abilities, which stretch the brain and strengthen cognitive abilities. Loneliness is more likely in your later years, and depression can increase the likelihood of dementia. Finding group activities fosters feelings of connection and adds purpose to everyday life — all of which deter depression.
Limit Alcohol Consumption
Drinking in moderation does not increase your risk for dementia. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines moderate drinking as no more than two drinks a day for men, and no more than one drink a day for women. Consuming more alcohol than this on a regular basis tends to have a negative impact on cognitive health.
The one factor that we cannot change is age. Age largely affects your likelihood of a dementia diagnosis — in fact, it is the number one risk factor. Once you turn 65, your risk continues to increase. However, the more you can maintain a lifestyle with healthy diet, exercise and social choices, the less likely age will negatively affect your health.
If you or your family members start noticing that you are showing signs of cognitive issues, it signals it’s time to call your doctor and schedule a cognitive evaluation. This is especially helpful because then you have a baseline measurement for your memory and cognitive function, which, later on, can help doctors more accurately make a determination regarding a possible dementia diagnosis.
Keep in mind that dementia can be challenging to diagnose, especially when it first presents. The more that is known about pre-existing brain health, the easier it is for a doctor to accurately diagnose their patient.