Having These 11 Habits When You’re Young Might Increase Your Risk Of Dementia
Having certain bad habits while you're young — such as smoking, not getting enough sleep, or allowing yourself to become super stressed — may not seem like a big deal now. But since they have the potential to rack up side effects within your body, it can come back to bite you in the form of various illnesses you might develop later in life, like dementia.
"Dementia refers to a group of symptoms that affect memory, thinking, language, and social skills enough to interfere with daily functioning," nursing supervisor Mimi Saraphis, RN, tells Bustle. "While dementia is often caused by a variety of diseases and conditions, lifestyle habits can be a contributing factor to the development of dementia. Habits like smoking, drinking, poor diet, lack of exercise, and more do contribute to chronic illnesses, which in turn can cause physical changes in the brain."
Even if you're young and relatively healthy now — and old age feels so far away — it's still important to take great care of your health, so your older self can reap the benefits. Here are a few bad habits you may want to improve, cut back on, or stop entirely in order to help prevent dementia, according to experts.
1. Keeping Yourself Isolated
It's 100 percent fine — and even healthy — to spend evenings alone, to enjoy your own company on the weekends, and to live a comfy, introverted life. But since studies have shown a connection between social isolation and the formation of dementia, it's important to also have a social network.
"It turns out that social isolation and a sense of being lonely [...] results in a significantly higher risk of developing various forms of dementia in later life," Teepa Snow, MS, OTR/L, FAOTA, dementia expert and Sleep Helpers affiliate, tells Bustle. "Initiating, participating in, and responding to language-based interchanges foster brain health and fitness. Social interaction causes your brain to activate almost all sections and encourages dynamic and active neuronal firing and synaptic formations."
If social anxiety or depression are keeping you isolated, don't hesitate to reach out to a therapist for support. They can help you address symptoms — such as a lack of energy, hopelessness, or nervousness — that might be holding you back.
2. Staying Up All Night
Good sleep plays a substantial role not only in your current health, but in how you might feel years down the line. So if you aren't getting enough rest each night, take note.
"Sleep is a very active and complicated internal maintenance system process," Snow says. "There are multiple waves and phases that allow the body and brain to remove toxins, integrate information, and promote healthy recovery." So if you often pull all-nighters, or struggle with insomnia, make a point of speaking with your doctor ASAP.
"Current practices of living with routine sleep deprivation keep the brain from performing these important routine tasks," Snow says. "There is mounting evidence that not getting these tasks completed on a regular basis increases the risk of build-up of unhealthy materials in the brain, which sets us up for various dementias with increasing age."
Practicing good sleep hygiene is a great place to start. This means going to bed at the same time every night, waking up at the same time, and making sure your room is cool, dark, and comfortable. If that doesn't work, it may be a good idea to speak with a sleep specialist, who can address any underlying causes of poor sleep.
3. Leading A Sedentary Life
It can be tough to fit movement into your day, and yet it's so important for your brain health — as well as your overall health — to get some type of exercise.
"It appears that physical activity that is aerobic and activates our cardiovascular system is critical to overall brain fitness and health," Snow says. "A sedentary lifestyle increases risk of developing multiple forms of dementia. Sustaining a physically active lifestyle that includes [...]activity, such as dancing, swimming, running, hiking, walking, boxing, or biking results in a more active and healthy brain structure."
Experiment to figure out the form of exercise that feels right for you, and then try to do it as often as possible to keep your body and brain healthy.
4. Never Challenging Your Mind
Your brain likes to be exercised, just as much as your body. So the sooner you can get into the habit of expanding your mind and learning new things, the better.
"If we don’t keep our brains engaged and interested in new and different things, we begin to lose synaptic connections," Snow says. To stave off dementia, use your brain as often as possible. Do crossword puzzles, read, play memory games, learn something new — whatever feels right for you.
As Snow says, it's "important to keep your brain changing and growing new synapses."
5. Letting Stress Take Over
It's impossible to avoid stress. And a little bit of it can actually be a good thing. But if you're under constant and intense levels of stress, it may impact your brain in the long run.
"Stress is one factor that may play a pivotal role in good memory function," Daniel Franc, MD, PhD, neurologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, tells Bustle. "The stress hormone cortisol may interfere with maintaining good brain health and is a factor that can be addressed throughout the lifespan."
You can learn to better manage stress by having an outlet for it (see aforementioned exercise tips). But it can also help to speak with a therapist, to learn some coping techniques.
6. Eating Foods That Are High In Cholesterol
It never hurts to pay attention to what you put in your body.
"We have connections between our gut and our brain that far exceed what we previously understood to be the case," Snow says. "[...] What we put into our system can and does greatly influence brain health over the long haul."
While it's fine to eat "unhealthy" food in moderation, it's also important to balance it out with healthy foods, so you don't develop certain health conditions that can lead to dementia. "Things like diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol levels from dietary excesses, create great risk for both vascular and Alzheimer’s dementia and Lewy Body dementia is closely associated with high levels of cholesterol," Snow says.
Everyone knows how bad smoking is, and how much it can damage your health. But did you know it can also increase your risk of dementia?
"Smoking heavily, especially, contributes to oxidative stress and inflammation which is believed to be important in the development of dementia," Saraphis says. So the sooner you can quit, the better.
8. Not Treating Your Anxiety
Anxiety in and of itself can be stressful, and is thus something you'll want to treat with the help of a therapist. But the fact that untreated anxiety can also increase your risk of developing dementia later in life, is another reason to make a few changes.
"Anxiety is a risk factor for dementia, because the high stress response triggers inflammation," psychologist and executive coach Dr. Perpetua Neo, tells Bustle. "Some research has found that anxiety is linked to the presence of plaques in the brain, which can develop as early as 30 years before dementia is diagnosed."
Don't let this information panic you, but instead use it as motivation to treat your anxiety and take great care of yourself. By meeting with a therapist, taking anxiety medication, and/or making healthy lifestyle changes, it's possible to lower your risk.
9. Suffering From Depression
As with anxiety, ongoing depression symptoms can play a role in the development of dementia, at some point down the line.
"Studies have shown that depression over a vast number of years can also contribute to or predict dementia," Susan London, LMSW, director of Social Work at Shore View Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, tells Bustle. "When individuals are depressed, they often isolate themselves from others and from their outside environment. They lose enjoyment in things they once loved. The pursuit for attaining their goals becomes denigrated, or diminished."
And as mentioned above, those are factors that can contribute to dementia. "When people don't challenge themselves on a regular basis to yearn and strive for more, the brain is at a standstill, and that is when they become most susceptible to the effects of cognitive decline," London says.
10. Failing To Protect Your Brain
While accidents happen, it's never a good idea to put yourself at risk for a head injury, possibly by riding a bike without a helmet, playing contact sports without head protection, and so on. As Franc says, "Traumatic brain injury including with sports or through combat injuries is known to increase the risk of developing dementia."
11. Drinking Heavily
While it's fine, and even considered healthy, to drink in moderation, drinking to excess on a regular basis can impact your brain health long-term. And it can even increase your risk for dementia once you get older.
As Saraphis says, "Heavy drinking will increase the level of acetaldehyde produced in the body when breaking down the alcohol consumed. Acetaldehyde is toxic to brain cells and negatively impacts brain function." And that can increase your risk.
There is good news, though, in that most of these bad habits can be prevented or modified, in the name of good health. If you smoke, you can try to quit. If you don't exercise, you can add more movement into your day. And if you currently ride a bike without a helmet, you can easily strap one on.
Since diseases linked to dementia have genetic components, though, these changes won't guarantee its prevention. But the healthier you can be right now, and the better you treat your body, the lower your risk will be.
Editor's Note: If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357).