A slightly fading memory is not unusual as you grow older, but dementia is so much more than that. It’s not a normal part of aging.

There are some things you can do to lower your risk of developing dementia, or at least slow it down. But because some causes are outside your control, you can’t totally prevent it.

Let’s take a closer look at some causes of dementia and what you can do right now to start reducing your risk.

Dementia is a blanket term for chronic, progressive loss of mental function. It’s not a disease, but a group of symptoms with various causes. There are two main categories for dementia, Alzheimer and non-Alzheimer.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. Dementia of Alzheimer’s disease involves memory loss, plus impairment of other functions of the brain such as:

  • language
  • speech
  • perception

Non-Alzheimer dementias have to do with frontotemporal lobar degenerations, with two main types. One type mostly affects speech. The other type involves:

  • behavioral changes
  • personality changes
  • lack of emotion
  • loss of social filter
  • apathy
  • trouble with organization and planning

In these non-Alzheimer’s dementias, memory loss appears later in disease progression. The second most common cause is vascular dementia. Some other non-Alzheimer’s dementias are:

Mixed dementia is when there are multiple causes. For example, a person with Alzheimer’s disease who also has vascular dementia has mixed dementia.

Some types of dementia are due to things beyond your control. But there are some things you can do to lower your risk of developing dementia and maintaining overall good health.


Regular physical activity can help reduce the risk of dementia. A 2019 study showed that aerobic exercise may slow atrophy in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls memory.

Another 2019 study revealed that active older adults tend to hold on to cognitive abilities better than those who are less active. This was the case even for participants who had brain lesions or biomarkers linked to dementia.

Regular exercise is also good for weight control, circulation, heart health, and mood, all of which could affect your dementia risk.

If you have a serious health condition, talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise regimen. And if you haven’t exercised in a while, start small, maybe just 15 minutes a day. Choose easy exercises and build up from there. Work your way up to:

  • 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobics, such as brisk walking, or
  • 75 minutes a week of more intense activity, such as jogging

Twice a week, add some resistance activities to work your muscles, such as push-ups, sit-ups, or lifting weights.

Some sports, like tennis, can provide resistance training and aerobics at the same time. Find something you enjoy and have fun with it.

Try not to spend too much time sitting or lying down during the day. Make movement a priority every day.

Eat well

A diet that’s good for the heart is good for the brain and overall health. A healthy diet may reduce your risk of conditions that can lead to dementia. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a balanced diet consists of:

  • fruit and vegetables
  • lentils and beans
  • grains, tubers, or roots
  • eggs, milk, fish, lean meat

Things to avoid or keep to a minimum are:

  • saturated fats
  • animal fats
  • sugars
  • salt

Your diet should center around nutrient-rich, whole foods. Avoid high-calorie, processed foods that provide little to no nutritional value.

Don’t smoke

Research shows that smoking can increase the risk of dementia, especially if you’re 65 years old or more. Smoking affects blood circulation all around your body, including the blood vessels in your brain.

If you smoke, but find it hard to quit, talk to your doctor about smoking cessation programs.

Go easy on alcohol

Research shows that excessive alcohol consumption may be a major risk factor for all types of dementia, including early-onset dementia. The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines moderate drinking as up to one drink per day for women and up to two for men.

One drink is equal to .6 ounces of pure alcohol. That translates into:

  • 12 ounces of beer with 5 percent alcohol
  • 5 ounces of wine with 12 percent alcohol
  • 1.5 ounces of 80 proof distilled spirits with 40 percent alcohol

Keep your mind active

An active mind may help lower the risk of dementia, so keep challenging yourself. Some examples would be:

  • study something new, like a new language
  • do puzzles and play games
  • read challenging books
  • learn to read music, take up an instrument, or start writing
  • stay socially engaged: keep in touch with others or join group activities
  • volunteer

Manage overall health

Staying in good shape can help lower risk of dementia, so get a yearly physical. See your doctor if you have symptoms of:

  • depression
  • hearing loss
  • sleep problems

Manage existing health conditions such as:

  • diabetes
  • heart disease
  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol

The risk of developing dementia rises with age. About 5 to 8 percent of people over age 60 have a form of dementia, says the WHO.

Conditions that can increase the risk of dementia include:

Contributing factors may include:

  • long-term alcohol or drug use
  • obesity
  • poor diet
  • repeated blows to the head
  • sedentary lifestyle
  • smoking

Dementia is a group of symptoms involving memory, reasoning, thinking, mood, personality, and behavior. Some early signs are:

  • forgetfulness
  • repeating things
  • misplacing things
  • confusion about dates and times
  • trouble finding the right words
  • changes in mood or behavior
  • changes in interests

Later signs may include:

  • worsening memory problems
  • trouble carrying on a conversation
  • trouble completing simple tasks such as paying bills or working a phone
  • neglecting personal hygiene
  • poor balance, falling
  • inability to problem solve
  • changes in sleeping patterns
  • frustration, agitation, confusion, disorientation
  • anxiety, sadness, depression
  • hallucinations

Memory loss doesn’t always mean dementia. What initially looks like dementia could turn out to be a symptom of a treatable condition, such as:

  • vitamin deficiency
  • medication side effects
  • abnormal thyroid function
  • normal pressure hydrocephalus

Diagnosing dementia and its cause is difficult. There’s no single test to diagnose it. Some types of dementia can’t be confirmed until after death.

If you have signs and symptoms of dementia, your doctor will probably start with your medical history, including:

  • family history of dementia
  • specific symptoms and when they started
  • other diagnosed conditions
  • medications

Your physical exam will likely include checking:

  • blood pressure
  • hormone, vitamin, and other blood tests
  • reflexes
  • balance assessment
  • sensory response

Depending on results, your primary care doctor may refer you to a neurologist for further evaluation. Cognitive and neuropsychological tests may be used to assess:

  • memory
  • problem solving
  • language skills
  • math skills

Your doctor may also order:

  • brain imaging tests
  • genetic tests
  • psychiatric evaluation

A decline in mental functioning that interferes with everyday tasks may be diagnosed as dementia. Lab tests and brain imaging can help exclude or confirm certain diseases as the cause.

Finding help for dementia

If you, or someone you care about has dementia, the following organizations can help or refer you to services.

Medicines for Alzheimer’s disease include:

  • cholinesterase inhibitors: donepezil (Aricept), rivastigmine (Exelon), and galantamine (Razadyne)
  • NMDA receptor antagonist: memantine (Namenda)

These drugs can help improve memory function. They may slow progression of Alzheimer’s disease, but they don’t stop it. These drugs can also be prescribed for other dementias, such as Parkinson’s disease, Lewy body dementia, and vascular dementia.

Your doctor can also prescribe medications for other symptoms, such as:

  • depression
  • sleep disturbances
  • hallucinations
  • agitation

Occupational therapy can help with such things as:

  • coping mechanisms
  • safer behaviors
  • behavior management
  • breaking tasks into easier steps

Some types of dementia can be effectively treated and reversed, particularly those caused by:

  • B-12 deficiency and other metabolic disorders
  • buildup of cerebral spinal fluid in the brain (normal pressure hydrocephalus)
  • depression
  • drug or alcohol use
  • hypoglycemia
  • hypothyroidism
  • subdural hematoma following a head injury
  • tumors that can be surgically removed

Most types of dementia are not reversible or curable, but they’re still treatable. These include those caused by:

  • AIDS dementia complex
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • vascular dementia

Your prognosis depends on many factors, such as:

  • cause of dementia
  • response to treatment
  • age and overall health

Your doctor can help you understand more about your individual outlook.

Dementia is a group of symptoms affecting memory and other cognitive functions. The top cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, followed by vascular dementia.

Some types of dementia are due to things you can’t change. But lifestyle choices that include regular exercise, a balanced diet, and mental engagement can help lower your risk of developing dementia.