Research Says You Can Lower Your Dementia Risk 33% By Doing This One Thing

About 5.8 million people in the U.S. were living with Alzheimer's disease, a form of dementia, in 2020—a number that is expected to triple by 2060, according to the CDC. We know this is a sobering fact, and sadly, age is the most significant risk factor, something we can't control.

Scientists are still learning about what causes Alzheimer's, including why women develop the disease in greater numbers—a topic explored widely in Parade and Cleveland Clinic's 2024 brain health survey. However, some factors, like lifestyle habits, may play a role. In a way, that's good news. It means we have some power to take the reigns of our brain health.

One habit in particular can significantly reduce dementia risk, according to research. It might surprise you, but a Cleveland Clinic neuropsychologist agrees and offers ways to make this habit a part of your routine, even if you have mobility issues.

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How to Lower Dementia Risk by up to 33%, According to Research

You might think of exercise as something that can benefit your heart, lungs and muscles—and it can. However, it's also great for your brain and, therefore, cognitive health. In fact, one study conducted on nearly 650,000 veterans who implemented an exercise treadmill test as part of their routine care had 33% lower risks of Alzheimer's disease and related disorders later in life. The authors concluded that cardiorespiratory fitness is associated with lower dementia odds as people age.

A Cleveland Clinic neuropsychologist agrees that moving the body benefits the mind. "Research has shown that getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week is the key to the best brain health with aging," says Dr. Jessica Caldwell, Ph.D., the director of the Women's Alzheimer's Movement Prevention Center at Cleveland Clinic.

Bonus: Those guidelines are aligned with the American Heart Association's recommendations for better heart health, giving new meaning to "full-body workouts."

"Less is more" has its place in certain situations. However, Dr. Caldwell says that going above and beyond the weekly exercise recommendations might be beneficial.

"For younger folks or people who've been physically active in the past or consistently throughout their life, getting up to 300 minutes or doing more vigorous exercise could be even more beneficial for the brain," Dr. Caldwell says. "It's a balance as we age between physical fitness and injury prevention and getting that good aerobic workout to benefit not just heart health but brain health."

Don't fret if you're just getting started in a fitness routine, have a packed schedule in your current season of life or have mobility issues that make 300 minutes of weekly exercise a hurdle. As Dr. Caldwell says, balance is essential.

Other research, like a 2022 study, has indicated that even small amounts of light-intensity physical activity in older adults might decrease their odds of dementia. A separate 2022 study of more than 78,000 adults published in JAMA Neurology suggested that a mere 4,000 daily steps could slash dementia risk by 25%.

Related: Adding This Delicious Staple to Your Diet Could Lower Your Risk of Dying from Dementia by 28%, According to New Research

A Great Workout to Lower Dementia Risk

While much of the above research discusses workouts that keep you on your feet, like running on a treadmill, Dr. Caldwell says people may have pain and mobility issues that make stepping to it challenging, especially as they age. Her suggestion? Dive into a lower-impact alternative that will still get your heart, lungs and brain working.

"One excellent exercise as we age is swimming," Dr. Caldwell says. "Swimming is an exercise where you eliminate some essential concerns with other types of exercise."

For starters, the risk of falling is lower. "You have the water supporting you," Dr. Caldwell says. "Even if you're walking or running in a swimming lane, you're still doing that in a way that's safer if your balance could be an issue. It's also less impact. As we age, even people who have been very strong athletes in the past may have accumulated injuries that make intense exercise too much for the joints or they may have active injuries. Swimming offers another way for people who want to be physically active, even at a high level, to do that in a way that can be gentler on the body."

Other Habits for Lowering Dementia Risk

1. Get enough sleep

You knew this one was coming, right? However, Dr. Caldwell empathizes with people struggling to catch all the Zzzz's.

"Sleep can be a big challenge," she says. "If you're a person who has had average sleep throughout your life, the first thing to do might be to look at your sleep habits. Are you going to bed and waking up at a similar time each day at night? Are you watching TV or looking at videos on a phone right before bed? Are you drinking coffee or a whole lot of water right before bed?"

Evaluating whether your bedroom is dark and quiet can also help. Some people may benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy to assess and tweak their sleep hygiene habits. Additionally, Dr. Caldwell says a sleep study, which can be done at a center or home, can help flag issues like sleep apnea.

2. Diet

The brain is an organ like the heart, and diet can benefit it. "With nutrition, the goal for brain health is to minimize processed foods and maximize whole foods," Dr. Caldwell says. "Things [you can get in] a drive-thru, oftentimes, that are not going to be your friend when it comes to brain health for life."

Dr. Caldwell says frequently recommended foods for brain health are those found on a Mediterranean or MIND diet meal plan. The MIND diet combines the popular and science-backed Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay diets. A 2021 study indicated it could assist with cognitive resilience as people age.

"Examples of foods there would be healthy fatty fish, high levels of green vegetables, green leafy vegetables, fruits, nuts and olive oil," Dr. Caldwell says.

3. Give the mind a workout

Yes, physical activity is good for the brain. However, so are "brain games," which mean embracing a lifetime of learning. A 2023 study in JAMA Geriatrics linked lower dementia risk with engagement in activities that challenge the brain, like crossword puzzles, chess, and journaling.

"The key is challenging learning, and that depends on your achievement levels throughout life, attention and interest," Dr. Caldwell says.

For some, that might come from a job. For others who are retired, that might mean learning a new language or instrument. Heck, you can even get some stimulation from TV-related activities (but there's a "but" here).

"Push yourself," Dr. Caldwell says. "If you're someone who likes to watch documentaries, push yourself to debate the topic with a friend, so [you're] engaging a bit more with the material."

Up next, transform your body at any age with 3 simple habits from a 71-year-old who is in the 'best shape of her life.'