Research is offering some actionable steps we can take to protect our minds from memory loss.
A large UK-based study published in the American Academy of Neurology’s medical journal found that physical and mental activities ― such as doing household chores, exercising or visiting loved ones may help lower the risk of dementia.
The roughly 11-year study followed 501,376 people in the UK who self-reported their physical and mental activities at the beginning of the experiment: how often they visit with friends, their education level, how often they climb stairs, how they commute to work, and more.
The study found certain activities were associated with a lower risk of dementia. People who frequently exercised had a 35% lower risk, people who frequently did household chores had a 21% lower risk and people who visited daily with family and friends had a 15% lower risk.
And while dementia risk factors also include things that are out of our control ― like aging and genetics ― the research underscores that there are behaviors within your power to either reduce your risk of dementia or delay the condition, Dr. Scott Turner, director of the memory disorders program at Georgetown University Medical Center, told HuffPost.
The study does come with a few caveats: The findings are a correlation, not necessarily a direct link. Another limitation is that because people reported their own physical and mental activities, there’s always a chance that some people forgot about activities they engaged in or reported them incorrectly.
“More research is needed to confirm our findings. However, our results are encouraging that making these simple lifestyle changes may be beneficial,” study author Dr. Huan Song of Sichuan University in China, said in a statement.
Overall, the results are good news, considering more than 5 million people in the United States live with dementia — and that number is only expected to grow.
Keeping your brain stimulated is key.
Whether through physical activity, social activity or mental activity, putting your brain to work can help delay dementia onset or reduce the risk altogether.
Chores double as both a physical and mental activity (and can even sometimes be considered exercise, Turner noted). Visits with loved ones are a social activity that also requires mental stimulation, and physical activity requires mental dedication, too.
Turner said that people who develop visual or hearing problems could be at a higher risk of dementia if they don’t address the problem by getting glasses or hearing aids. When you can’t hear or see, he explained, “you’re depriving your brain of sensory input, and you need to keep your brain stimulated” to help reduce your risk of dementia.
Physical activity has a double benefit when it comes to dementia risk.
Another risk factor for dementia is diabetes, Turner noted, and there are lifestyle patterns you can follow to reduce your risk of diabetes. These include exercising, following a healthy diet and maintaining an ideal body weight throughout your lifetime.
So, not only does exercise help slash your risk of dementia, but it also helps slash your risk of diabetes, which, in itself, puts you at risk for memory loss.
It’s never too late to implement these changes.
Turner stressed that no matter your age, it’s never too late to start following some of these lifestyle recommendations. And that can be as simple as doing some extra vacuuming around the house or going for a walk with your neighbor, for example.
“I recommend doing as much as possible with lifestyle [changes] to avoid and prevent dementia,” he said. “And, of course, prevention is better than treatment.”
For those who already have memory problems or dementia, Turner said lifestyle changes that require physical, social or mental activity are still beneficial. You can help slow down the progression of dementia by keeping your brain stimulated. This is why puzzles are a popular activity among people with Alzheimer’s disease.
If you experience any new memory problems, talk to your doctor.
“If someone does develop memory problems, then they certainly should seek evaluation starting with their primary care provider,” Turner said.
He stressed that some very treatable things cause memory problems, like sleep apnea and Vitamin B12 deficiency. But any neurological changes should be evaluated so you get the proper treatment plan.