How to reduce your risk of Alzheimer's and other dementias
Although getting older is the biggest risk factor for dementia, evidence shows there are things you can do to help reduce your own risk. These include keeping active, eating healthily and exercising your mind.
Doing regular physical activity is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of dementia. It’s good for your heart, circulation, weight and mental wellbeing.
You might find it difficult to start being more physically active, or worry it means doing an activity you don’t enjoy. It’s important to find activities that work for you. You might find it helpful to start off with a small amount of activity and then build up gradually.
There are two main types of physical activity – aerobic activity and strength-building activity. Each type will keep you fit in different ways. Doing a combination of these activities will help you to reduce your risk of dementia. For examples of each activity type, see the dropdown list below.
Aerobic activity helps to keep your heart, lungs and blood circulation healthy – and this is good for brain health too.
‘Moderate intensity’ aerobic activity is anything that makes you breathe faster and feel warmer. ‘Vigorous’ activity is anything that makes you sweat or get out of breath after a while, making it difficult to talk without pausing for breath.
In general, one minute of vigorous activity is equal to two minutes of moderate intensity activity. The official UK recommendation is to try to do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity each week or 75 minutes of vigorous activity. You can break this activity up into smaller sessions if it’s easier for you.
It’s also a good idea to spend less time sitting or lying down and more time moving.
Strength-building activity works your major muscles (legs, back, stomach, shoulders, arms). This helps you to do everyday tasks. This type of activity also helps you to control the level of sugars in your blood and reduce your risk of diabetes, which is a risk factor for dementia. Ideally you should do strength-building activities on at least two or more days each week.
- brisk walking
- gentle swimming
- water aerobics
- cycling gently or on flat ground
- tennis (doubles)
- pushing a lawnmower
- painting and decorating
- jogging or running fast
- cycling fast or uphill
- swimming fast
- tennis (singles)
- aerobics or spinning sessions
- heavy gardening (such as digging and shovelling)
- lifting weights or similar objects in the home, like cans or heavy books
- working with resistance bands
- exercises that use your body weight, such as push-ups and sit-ups
- yoga, tai chi or pilates
- wheeling a wheelchair
- circuit training
- netball or basketball
- martial arts
- walking up stairs or a hill
- heavy gardening
Physical activity guidelines for adults
How much physical activity do adults aged 19-64 years old need to do to stay healthy?
Tips for keeping active
- Choose an activity you’ll enjoy – this makes it more likely that you’ll keep doing it.
- Try using a wearable gadget (such as a wristband fitness tracker) or a smartphone app (such as Public Health England’s ‘One You Active 10 Walk Tracker’ app or ‘Couch to 5K’ app) to track your progress. Set yourself a target and try to stick to it. A good target for many people is to aim to walk 10,000 steps per day.
- You might find a workout video helpful, such as the videos on the NHS website.
- Group activities like hiking clubs are a great way to connect and interact with people. This helps to keep the brain active and engaged.
- If you enjoy activities like tai chi, pilates and yoga, keep doing them. They’re also good for balance and staying flexible, and may prevent you from falling. There is some evidence that tai chi may reduce your risk of getting dementia, but more research is needed to prove this.
Eating a healthy, balanced diet may reduce your risk of dementia, as well as other conditions including cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity, stroke and heart disease.
No single ingredient, nutrient or food can improve brain health by itself. Instead, eating a range of different foods in the right proportions is what makes a difference. This is known as a ‘balanced’ diet.
By eating a balanced diet you are more likely to get all the nutrients you need for your brain to stay healthy. The NHS Eatwell guide shows what food groups make up a balanced diet and roughly how much of each is needed to stay healthy.
Some eating patterns are particularly helpful in protecting you against dementia such as the Mediterranean-style diet. Eating a Mediterranean-style diet doesn’t necessarily mean eating foods from Mediterranean countries. Instead, try to follow these guidelines.
- Include wholegrain starchy foods in most meals – for example, wholemeal bread, rice and pasta.
- Eat more fruits, vegetables, pulses (for example, beans, peas and lentils) and nuts and seeds.
- Eat less red meat – for example beef and lamb, and especially processed meats such as sausages and bacon.
- Eat fish regularly – particularly oily types like salmon and mackerel. However, try to limit eating battered or breaded fish which is high in unhealthy fat.
- Try to choose lower-fat dairy foods where possible.
- Use vegetable and plant oils for cooking and dressing – for example, olive oil and rapeseed oil. Try to avoid solid fats like butter, lard or ghee.
- Limit the amount of salt in your diet – try not to eat more than 6g (about a teaspoon) a day.
- Try to make sugary foods only occasional treats – such as pastries, sweets, biscuits, cakes and chocolate.
- Consume alcohol in moderation (ideally with food) – if you don’t drink alcohol already, try not to start.
If you smoke, you’re putting yourself at a much higher risk of developing dementia later in life.
Smoking does a lot of harm to the circulation of blood around the body, particularly the blood vessels in the brain, as well as the heart and lungs.
It’s never too late to quit smoking. However, the earlier you stop, the more brain damage you will avoid.
Tips for stopping smoking
- Talk to your GP or pharmacist about different ways to stop smoking.
- Try using a date or event as motivation for stopping. For example, you could make it a new year’s resolution.
- Consider using a less harmful nicotine product such as e-cigarettes (vaping), lozenges, patches, mouth and nasal sprays, or gum.
- Try using NHS Smokefree support services, which include a helpline, app and local support services.
Drinking too much alcohol increases your risk of developing dementia.
If you regularly drink alcohol, try to do so in moderation and within recommended limits. Drinking too much alcohol at one time exposes your brain to high levels of harmful chemicals.
Try to drink no more than 14 units of alcohol each week. This is equal to about one pint of beer or a small glass of wine each day. If you regularly drink much more than this, you are increasing your risk of damage to your brain and other organs, and so increasing your risk of dementia.
If you drink as many as 14 units of alcohol a week, try to spread them out over at least three days. You can see how many units there are in common alcoholic drinks in the dropdown list below.
The units below are based on typical alcohol by volume (ABV) content. However, this does vary.
If you’re buying a bottle or can, it’s helpful to check the ABV content on the label.
Small glass of wine (125ml) 1.5 units (ABV 12%)
Large glass of wine (250ml) 3 units (ABV 12%)
Can or pint of beer, lager or cider 2 units (ABV 4%)
Pint of higher-strength beer, lager or cider 3 units (ABV 5.2%)
Shot (25ml) of spirits like gin, vodka, rum 1 unit (ABV 40%)
Tips for cutting down on alcohol
- Set yourself a weekly alcohol limit and keep track of how much you’re drinking.
- Have several alcohol-free days each week.
- Try low-alcohol or alcohol-free drinks, or smaller sizes of drinks.
- Try to alternate between alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks like cola, water or juice.
- Let your friends and family know that you're cutting down, and how they can support you. This can make it easier to drink less, especially at social events.
- Take advantage of particular dates and events to motivate you. For example, you could make a new year’s resolution to drink less.
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Engaging in mental or social activities may help to build up your brain’s ability to cope with disease, relieve stress and improve your mood. This means doing these activities may help to delay, or even prevent, dementia from developing.
Find activities you enjoy that challenge your brain, and do them regularly. This could be puzzles or crosswords, but there are also many other activities you could do.
Anything that engages your mind, processes information and develops your thinking skills is good for the brain and reducing your risk. For example:
- any kind of adult education or learning
- arts and crafts (especially in groups)
- playing a musical instrument or singing
- volunteering, for example volunteering with Alzheimer's Society
- doing ‘brainteasers’, such as puzzles, crosswords or quizzes
- playing card games, chess or board games
- reading books, or becoming a member of a book club
- creative writing or keeping a diary
- learning a new language.
If you use a smartphone or tablet (for example an iPad) you might enjoy apps that can provide mental stimulation. These include puzzle, memory or board game apps.
Social activities are also good for the brain, making them a great way to reduce your risk of getting dementia. This includes interacting with other people online as well as in person. This means it’s important to try to keep in touch with the people who matter to you, such as friends and family.
Why are social activities good for the brain?
Having a conversation with someone can also exercise a wide range of your mental skills, for example:
- actively listening to and communicating with the other person
- considering the meaning of what someone is trying to tell you and how they feel
- finding the right way to express what you want to say and putting words together in the right order for someone to understand
- recalling things that have happened which are relevant to what you’re talking about.
As you get older, you are more likely to develop certain health conditions, such as high blood pressure or diabetes. These conditions can increase the risk of getting dementia.
An important way to avoid this is by going for a health check.
If you live in England
Your GP may invite you to an NHS Health Check, or you can book an appointment by contacting them.
This NHS Health Check is available to anyone aged 40–74 who lives in England and does not already have diabetes, heart, kidney or circulation problems. It is designed to find any early signs of these conditions and stop them getting worse. Ideally, you should have this check-up every five years.
After your health check, you can discuss any concerns with a healthcare professional and get advice on looking after your health, including reducing your risk of dementia.
If you already have any of these conditions, it’s still important to have regular health check-ups. However you don’t need to book an NHS Health Check specifically.
If you live in Wales
You can use the ‘Add to Your Life’ free online health and wellbeing check.
If you live in Northern Ireland
You can book a free ‘Well Check’ via Northern Ireland Chest, Heart and Stroke (NICHS) charity.
Other ways to take care of your health
Sleep is important for your mental wellbeing and it may reduce your risk of dementia. A good night’s sleep for many people is around seven to eight hours.
Obstructive sleep apnoea is a sleep disorder that may particularly increase a person’s risk of getting dementia. This is because it reduces the amount of oxygen that gets to the brain. People who have sleep apnoea stop breathing during their sleep and then wake up with a start.
If you have any problems sleeping well, particularly sleep apnoea, speak to your GP about getting support.
Hearing loss may increase your risk of getting dementia. However the reasons for this are still unclear.
Many people start to lose their hearing as they get older, though they may not notice it at first.
To avoid hearing loss increasing your risk of getting dementia, it’s important to get your hearing tested. You may be able to book a free hearing test at your local optician or speak to your GP about being referred to an audiologist (a doctor for hearing). This will show up any hearing issues and provide ways of managing them, such as using a hearing aid.
Often, managing hearing loss works best when you start doing it early on. This means protecting your hearing from a young age. For example, you can avoid listening to loud noises for long periods, and wear ear protection when necessary.
Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) are caused by a blow or jolt to the head – especially when the person is knocked out unconscious. TBIs can start a process in the brain where the substances that cause Alzheimer’s disease build up around the injured area.
Serious TBIs in younger people are mostly caused by:
- road traffic accidents
- an object accidentally hitting their head
- active service in the armed forces
- some sports (particularly boxing, cycling, skiing and horse-riding).
Try to wear protective headgear in situations where there is a higher-than-normal risk of head injury – for example, riding a bike, working on a building site, horse-riding or playing cricket.
More research is needed to fully understand the amount of long-term dementia risk involved in contact sports like rugby or football. However, it’s still important that coaching staff know how to deal with concussions and other head injuries. They should also have a plan in place to make sure players get medical attention when they need it.
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