Alzheimer's disease Brain Featured

How your lifestyle can protect you from dementia

two seniors exercising

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is one of the most feared consequences of aging, and part of that stems from the thought that nothing can be done about, says Dr. Jennifer Rabin, scientist and neuropsychologist at Sunnybrook’s Harquail Centre for Neuromodulation. But at the latest Speaker Series – An Evening Discussion on Dementia – she discussed various lifestyle factors that may reduce the risk of AD and dementia.

Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a decline in thinking abilities that is severe enough to interfere with one’s day-to-day activities. While some degree of forgetfulness is completely normal as we age, the memory loss experienced in the context of dementia is much more severe.

AD is the most common cause of dementia, and is defined by the abnormal build-up of two proteins in the brain: amyloid plaques and tau tangles. The build of these proteins leads to the death of brain cells, which causes the brain to shrink and impacts memory and thinking abilities.

There are many risk factors for dementia. Some, like older age and genetics, can’t be changed. But recent research has shown that up to 40 per cent of dementia cases are linked to risk factors that people can control.

Vascular Risk Factors

Vascular Risk Factors (VRF) are conditions that affect the health of blood vessels that supply oxygen and nutrients to the brain. These include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes and smoking. Each of these conditions on their own can increase the risk of dementia, and when they present together, the risk is even higher.

The good news is that we know how to treat VRF. If you have been prescribed medication for high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes, take it as directed and keep up with routine doctor visits. Eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly, as these lifestyle changes can reduce the risk of these conditions. There are also effective strategies to manage obesity and smoking, so don’t hesitate to reach out to your health care team. A good rule of thumb is that what’s good for the heart is good for the brain!

Cognitive Reserve

Cognitive reserve refers to your brain’s ability to cope and keep working, even in the face of damage from diseases like AD. Research has suggested that engaging in mentally stimulating activities throughout own’s life can help build up a high cognitive reserve, offering some protection from AD and other dementias.

Because of these findings, researchers now recommend keeping your mind active throughout your whole life, especially after you retire.

It’s not clear which activities may be most beneficial for the brain, so choose any challenging activity you enjoy. Some examples include playing chess, learning a new instrument or language, doing a puzzle or even socializing with family and friends.

Physical Activity

Several studies have shown that regular exercise can significantly reduce the risk of developing dementia. In our own research, we found that people who engaged in regular physical activity – even in older adults with Alzheimer’s changes in their brain – had less decline in their memory over time compared to those who were sedentary.

It doesn’t really matter what type of physical activity you engage in, as long as it elevates your heart rate. We know that people are more likely to exercise if they participate in activities they enjoy. Choosing social activities, like walking and dancing, can have the added benefit of exercising the body and the mind. Current guidelines suggest doing at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week, but remember that some movement is always going to be more beneficial than nothing.


All of us know that a bad night’s sleep can impair our ability to think the following day. Research has also shown that getting too few hours of sleep may also increase the risk of  developing AD and dementia. It appears that sleep acts like a dishwasher, helping clear out harmful toxins – including amyloid –  from the brain.

To optimize quality sleep, try to go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning. Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark and at a comfortable temperature. Avoid using electronic devices two to three hours before going to sleep. Also, engaging in physically activity during the day can reduce the time it takes to fall asleep at night.

For people who gravitate towards naps, keep in mind that in some cases they can be a sign of a larger health issue or insufficient stimulation during waking hours. Generally, naps can be restorative, as long as they are limited and don’t interrupt your normal and healthy wake/sleep cycle.

About the author

Monica Matys

Monica Matys is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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