More than 6 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s and dementia, making it the seventh leading cause of death globally.
While myriad factors, including genetics and environment, can cause dementia, it can also present as a result of certain lifestyle choices and general health.
Some involve making big changes, but consistent, more minor shifts can be helpful, too, according to Jessica Caldwell, director of the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement Prevention Center at Cleveland Clinic.
“Small changes over time can add up to major benefits for your brain as you age,” she said. “It’s never too late to start a healthy habit — even people who have mild cognitive changes or dementia can benefit from brain healthy habits.”
But what about the things you should never do? Below, neurologists and doctors share the habits they avoid, and recommend avoiding, to maintain optimal brain health.
They avoid eating a diet of only processed foods
For many of us, it’s not financially or physically possible to eat all nourishing meals, all the time. Fast food is convenient, affordable and, well, fast. But when it comes to brain health, if you’re only reaching for the processed foods, you’re doing your brain a disservice.
“A regular fast food habit decreases the odds of having room in your typical diet for brain-healthy whole foods like green, leafy vegetables, omega-3-rich fish, berries and nuts,” Caldwell told HuffPost.
High levels of omega-3s in the brain, for example, are thought to help brain cells better communicate with other cells in the body, which the Alzheimer’s Society calls an important process for brain function.
What’s more, a diet lacking healthy foods, such as fermented foods like yogurt, kefir or kimchi, can lead to cognitive problems, according to neuroscientist Friederike Fabritius.
“Processed foods lead to micro-inflammations in the brain, and that is associated with all kinds of problems and reduces longevity,” she said. “The microbiome affects the brain, so eating fermented foods every day is a sure way to dramatically improve your brain health. Most of our neurotransmitters are produced in the gut.”
They don’t live a sedentary lifestyle
The benefits of movement are wide-reaching – so it’s no surprise they also assist in maintaining brain health. Dr. Randall Wright, a neurologist and medical director of the Brain Wellness Center at Houston Methodist The Woodlands Hospital, likened exercise to “bluetooth for the brain” – meaning it helps us make better connections.
“It’s kind of the holy grail,” he told HuffPost. “We all look for things that help with neuroplasticity, and exercise unlocks the brain’s potential. It’s important to keep those brain cells moving forward and developing.”
Exercise also improves blood flow to the brain, can lower stress, can reduce inflammation and, as we already know, maintain cardiovascular health. All of these things contribute to a healthier mind.
They aren’t anti-social
The loneliness epidemic is detrimental to our societal and physical health. “We know that people who have great social relationships live eight years longer on average, that is an impact similar to smoking two packs of cigarettes per day,” Fabritius said.
Social isolation, or retreating from social activities like being in the workplace, can have a negative effect on the brain.
“A lot is happening when we’re interacting, we’re processing a lot,” said Dr. Zaldy Tan, the director of the Jona Goldrich Center for Alzheimer’s and Memory Disorders at Cedars-Sinai in California. “When we don’t do that, those neural pathways are not being utilised and they start to redirect or dissipate, which can accelerate cognitive decline.”
Losing that stimulation can also lead to things like decreased physical activity and depression, which also have a correlation with dementia.
They don’t pull consistent all-nighters
Getting enough sleep does not just ensure you are more clear-headed and have more energy, it also is proven to help your brain continue to process normally.
“Twelve years ago we learned about the glymphatic system, basically the brain’s garbage can,” Wright said. “When you’re sleeping, it becomes extremely active, moving the trash, all the things we see in people with Alzheimer’s and dementia that accumulate are eliminated through this system.”
What’s more, skimping out on your sleep can hinder the other brain-healthy habits you may be engaging in during the day. “Being sleep-deprived can make it difficult to engage in healthy behaviours that take energy, like exercise, and can impact our mood and stress levels,” Caldwell said.
They don’t ignore their stress
Speaking of stress, prolonged periods can also have a negative impact on your health. While there is no such thing as a stress-free life, Tan told HuffPost that what matters is not trying to avoid it at all costs, but learning how to better manage when it happens.
“Having sustained levels of stress is bad for you,” he said. “When you’re stressed, your cortisol shoots up, and if it’s sustained, it can damage the brain.”.
He advises to take stock on the way you handle stressful situations — do you let it linger? Or are you able to find ways to manage it by doing things like taking a walk, or a yoga class or meditating ― anything to stop you from wallowing in it?
They never dismiss high blood pressure
Smoking, unhealthy diet and lack of exercise are just a few things that contribute to high blood pressure ― habits that we build up over time into midlife. And high blood pressure is one of the many things that can cause dementia.
“Hypertension, or high blood pressure, that’s uncontrolled shows increased risk of developing dementia later in life,” Tan said. “The correlation is less later in life, but we have the benefit of these longitudinal studies following people from 1947 ― people who are in their 70s and 80s now, we have their blood pressure from their 40s and 50s ― and there is a correlation.”
Doing what you can to mitigate some of the lifestyle factors that contribute to high blood pressure, then, will help with preventing cognitive brain decline in the future.
They don’t stop learning
You may be years out of school, but staying curious is a way to exercise the mind ― and keep it sharp. In fact, a recent study found that adults who engaged in continued education had a 19% less risk of developing dementia. In an August 2023 HuffPost piece, Tan explained why that might be.
“Whenever we learn new things, we know that we form new connections between brain cells,” Tan continued.
“Whenever you make these connections, you increase what we call brain plasticity. Plasticity is [the] ability of our minds and our brains to adapt to change. And that is the theory why people, for example, who have higher degrees of formal education have less risk of developing dementia later in life.”