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5 Ways to Cut Your Risk for Dementia

All in Your Mind

In the new film The Iron Lady, Meryl Streep portrays an aging Margaret Thatcher as she grapples with encroaching dementia. Jazz singer Etta James, who just passed away from leukemia at age 73, also battled dementia in her later years. It’s a reminder that dementia can strike anyone—even one of the most indomitable public figures of recent times.

About 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia. And it seems that the slow slide into mental decline may begin much sooner than previously suspected. A new 10-year study in the journal BMJ showed declines in memory, reasoning, and verbal fluency starting as early as age 45.

But there’s good news, too. A growing body of research suggests that you may be able to lower your risk for dementia by making simple lifestyle changes.

Solve a Crossword

Hobbies that give your brain a workout—such as reading, doing crosswords, or playing chess—help build up reserves of brain cells and connections. As you age, that activity might slow down mental decline caused by altered connections in the brain.

The evidence for this benefit isn’t as strong as you might expect. A 2010 statement from the National Institutes of Health called it “limited but inconsistent.” Still, if you choose an activity that’s fun and relaxing, you’ll at the very least enjoy the mental stimulation. Plus, you’ll reduce stress, and that in itself may be good for the health of your brain.

Play an Instrument

Making music may give your brain a lifelong boost, according to a study from the University of Kansas Medical Center. The study included 70 healthy adults age 60 and up, who were divided into groups based on their musical experience. Those who had played an instrument for at least 10 years did better on tests of mental abilities than those with no musical training.

Of the highly experienced musicians, almost half were still playing at the time of the study. But they didn’t do any better on mental tests than those who had given up playing years before. The researchers speculated that learning an instrument when younger may have built brain connections that served them well later in life.

Break a Sweat

Recently, researchers fromthe Mayo Clinic recently analyzed dozens of previously published studies on physical activity and brain function. Taken together, the studies showed that any activity that raises your heart rate and makes you breathe harder may reduce the risk for dementia. Once dementia has begun, exercise may slow its progress.

Phone a Friend

Staying socially engaged helps keep your brain young. And pastimes that combine mental, physical, and social activity may be especially protective against dementia. So hanging out with your friends is good. But hanging out at a cardio class where you’re working up a sweat while memorizing a complex routine is even better.

Order the Salmon

Fish really is brain food, based on a study presented at the 2011 meeting of the Radiological Society of North America. Brain scans showed that people who ate baked or broiled—but not fried—fish at least once a week had better preserved gray matter in key areas of the brain. The researchers calculated that eating fish weekly cut Alzheimer’s risk by almost five-fold.

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Lake Assal, Djibouti

Photograph by George Steinmetz

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