More than 16 million Americans live with cognitive impairment, and that number will only go up as the population ages. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines a person with cognitive impairment as one who has trouble remembering, concentrating, and learning to the point that it affects their daily life and activities. Cognitive impairment can range from the mild to severe, cases like dementia from Alzheimer’s or other causes.
As scientists search for a cure for Alzheimer’s and treatment for other sorts of dementia, they have learned a great deal about how the brain works and ages. Some of that research suggests that certain bad habits lead to brain injury or shrinkage, making eventual and severe cognitive impairment much more likely. Here are three practices you should consider kicking to lower your odds of ending up with dementia or another brain-related disease in your golden years:
- Smoking — After the age of 20 or so, everyone’s brains stop growing and begin to shrink. According to numerous studies by the National Institutes of Health, smokers’ brain mass thins significantly more than nonsmokers at every age. Canadian researchers found further that smoking shrinks the brain’s cortex, the area that controls cognition and the area that shows significant thinning in Alzheimer’s patients. However, quitting smoking can reverse the effects, and the sooner you quit, the better. The same study found that 25 years after stopping, the cortexes of the ex-smokers were the same dimensions as those of people who never smoked at all.
- Alcohol — While it is true that a glass of wine or spirits a day is good for heart and brain health, the key to this recommendation is moderation. Longer term consumption of alcohol over the recommended amounts– no more than fourteen drinks a week for men and seven drinks a week for women–does damage to the brain at the cellular level, directly impacting mood, memory, motor coordination, sleep patterns, and the ability to learn. Just as in the case of quitting smoking, however, research has shown that cutting down on your drinking, or stopping altogether, can reverse the damage to your brain.
- Weight gain — Several academic studies have found a link between obesity in middle age and the onset of dementia in later life. Further, the Joint International Congress of Endocrinology/European Congress of Endocrinology has reported that older people with pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes often also suffer from brain degeneration. Medical researchers believe that the links may be due to cytokines, chemicals secreted by fat tissue and dangerous to the brain.
There are many reasons to stop smoking, to drink alcohol in moderation, and to maintain a healthy weight, including the optimal functioning of your heart, liver, lungs, and stomach. Now you can add a healthy brain to that list of reasons to kick your bad habits today.