Prevention and Risk Factors of Alzheimer's Disease and Other Dementias

In a world where the treatment options for Alzheimer's disease are marginal at best and no miracle drugs are in sight, the focus in the fight against Alzheimer's is on prevention. If we don't know yet how to treat the disease once we get it, can we prevent it from occurring?

While prevention strategies like immunizations aren't available yet, research has identified several ways that we can decrease our risk for Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia.

These are factors that we can exercise some control over—choices and lifestyles that we can influence, at least to some extent. 

Physical Exercise

Better than medicine, physical exercise has been strongly correlated with a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer's and other types of dementia. Studies have been conducted on several types of exercise including running, weight resistance training, and yoga, all showing the potential to reduce your risk of dementia.

Along with specific types of exercise, physical activity in general—including dancing and gardening—has been connected to a reduced dementia risk.  

Keep Your Heart Healthy

Many of the same strategies to reduce heart disease also benefit your brain. For example, research suggests that high blood pressure is correlated with an increased risk of dementia, while lowering it through exercise and a heart-healthy diet can reduce your risk. Interestingly, studies have found that if you're not effective with your efforts through diet and exercise, your risk of dementia can still be reduced by taking medications to lower your blood pressure.

Eat Right

Science has repeatedly concluded that what we put in our mouths has a significant connection to the health of our brains. A diet that helps reduce the risk of Alzheimer's includes berries, apples, nuts, wine, some types of dark chocolate, coffee, caffeine, cinnamoncurcumin, leafy green vegetables, folic acid and fish, among other foods.

In addition, when you have a choice, use extra virgin olive oil when cooking instead of other oils, since it has been correlated with a decreased risk of dementia.

Adhering to the Mediterannean diet, which often contains many of the foods listed above, has been correlated with a host of health benefits, including improved brain functioning. 

Maintain a Healthy Weight

Keeping your body mass index (BMI) in a healthy range, especially in your middle years, has been tied to a lower risk of dementia. 

Mental Exercise

The saying "use it or lose it" has a lot of truth in it. Exercise your brain to keep it sharp. Mental activity has been associated with increased cognitive reserve, which in turn has been connected with a reduced risk of dementia. 

Research connecting mental exercise to better brain health includes activities such as learning and using another language, doing crossword puzzles, playing card games, and even going online to use Facebook

Cognitive Training

Along the same lines as mental exercise, cognitive training takes things a step further.

Cognitive training consists of spending structured time training your brain, almost as if you were working out with a personal trainer. Brain training has been shown through research to be an effective way to improve memory, reasoning, and language skills. It also has demonstrated benefits in the area of activities of daily living (ADL) functioning.

Don't Smoke

Lighting up increases your risk for several types of cancer and lung diseases, but did you know that it also can hurt your brain? According to World Health Organization, 14 percent of Alzheimer's cases worldwide may be attributed to smoking tobacco. Even secondhand smoke may increase your dementia risk.

Adequate Amounts of Vitamins B12, D, and E

Lower levels of vitamin B12, vitamin D, and vitamin E have all been associated with decreased cognitive functioning in some research studies. In particular, a deficiency in vitamin B12 can cause significant memory loss and confusion that may be at least partially reversed through vitamin B12 supplementation. Likewise, higher levels of vitamin D and vitamin E have been linked to a lower risk of developing dementia.

Control Blood Sugars (Even Without Diabetes)

A strong connection between higher blood sugars and dementia risk exists—so much so that Alzheimer's disease has been nicknamed "type 3 diabetes." Even if you don't have diabetes, higher blood sugars can increase the risk for dementia. Maintaining good control of blood sugars, with or without a diabetes diagnosis, can be thought of as preventative medicine for your brain. That means that less sugar in your diet is generally better for your brain. 

Protect Your Head

Some research has found a connection between head injuries, especially those where you lose consciousness, and an increased risk of dementia. You can reduce the chances of head injuries by wearing a helmet when you ride your bike and play other sports, by being aware of what causes people to experience falls in their homes and trying to prevent those situations, and by always wearing a seatbelt when you're in a car.  

Study Up

Go back to school! Research has repeatedly connected higher education levels to a lower risk of cognitive impairment. Even if you don't enroll officially, it's important to keep learning throughout your whole life.

Some research suggests that you may want to switch it up. Learning about things that are unfamiliar to you can have more of a benefit than continuing to focus on the same topic that you've been interested in for many years.

Social Interaction

Spending time with friends has been identified as an important factor, both for maintaining quality of life and for reducing the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. Some research found that it's not necessarily the number of friends you have, but rather the quality and depth of the friendship that matters.

Social interactions such as babysitting grandchildren have also been associated with improved cognitive functioning.

Identify and Treat Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea—where you stop breathing multiple times while you're sleeping—has many risks associated with it, including an increased risk of dementia. The good news is that research has also shown that people who treated their sleep apnea with a machine that helps them breathe, such as a CPAP machine, experienced a significant improvement in their cognitive functioning when compared to those who did not seek treatment.

Treat Depression

Both early-life and later-life depression have been found to increase the risk of developing dementia. We're not sure exactly why this is, but we do know that feelings of depression can affect brain function. It's possible that addressing symptoms of depression could improve your quality of life and perhaps also decrease your risk of later experiencing dementia.

Manage Chronic Stress

In some research, chronic stress (lasting over an extended period of time rather than one stressful episode) has been connected to an increased risk of cognitive decline. While some stressful situations are our of our control, other stressors can be somewhat impacted by our choices or our responses to situations. Learning how to recognize and reduce stress can be helpful in many areas of your mental and physical health.    

How Effective Are Prevention and Risk Reduction Strategies?

Perhaps you're wondering if it's worth the time and effort to attempt to reduce your risk of dementia. After all, other risk factors such as age, heredity, and family history also play a role in determining your risk. Does how we live really matter that much?

Cautiously, yes. Multiple research studies have concluded that modifiable factors (ones that we are able to potentially influence by our lifestyle and choices) likely play a significant role in many cases of dementia.

However, as we look at risk reduction for dementia, it's important to understand that while these strategies have been associated with a reduced risk, they haven't been directly shown to cause the reduced risk. Rather, most research has demonstrated a correlation, which shows a relationship to or a connection between the healthy living strategy and the reduced risk of dementia. One reason this is true of many studies is that research that determines cause is generally more difficult to conduct than research that shows correlation. 

Additionally, there are some people that, although they practice many of these strategies and work hard to live a healthy life, still develop dementia. Science still has a ways to go when it comes to completely understanding what really causes dementia and, therefore, how we can fully prevent it from developing or treat it effectively after it is present.

A Word From Verywell

Many of these well-researched steps to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias are really just directions for healthy living. If you're looking for more motivation to make the gym a priority, or to choose an apple instead of that bag of chips, the thought that you may be able to protect your brain from diseases like Alzheimer’s might provide just the push you need.

Consider viewing these strategies as a gift to those around you and to yourself—both for today and for your future health.


Alzheimer's Association. Prevention and Risk of Alzheimer's and Dementia.​

The Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research Foundation. 7 Ways to Reduce Your Alzheimer's Risk.​

National Institute on Aging. US Department of Health and Human Services. Preventing Alzheimer’s Disease: What Do We Know?

Xu W, Tan L, Wang H-F, et al. Meta-analysis of modifiable risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry. August 2015:2015–310548.

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