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Together, dementia and cognitive impairment impact about one in three Americans, according to a new brain health study. Help keep your brain sharp with these holistic, doable lifestyle shifts.

As much as you might have zero use for your ability to still recall your childhood landline phone number, or could really do without your ability to karaoke to every word of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” on cue—no screen lyrics required—a sharp memory is nothing to take for granted.

A new study published October 24, 2022 in the journal JAMA Neurology offers a stark reminder why: 1 in 10 Americans over age 65 is living with dementia, and another 22% of seniors experience mild cognitive impairment, which is one of the initial signs that more serious cognition challenges might be on the way.

Ahead, learn more about how they came to this conclusion, then study up on healthy habits you can work into your routine today to possibly reduce your risk.

What This Brain Health Study Found

Researchers from the University of Michigan, Columbia University Medical Center and Brown University Warren Alpert Medical School teamed up to analyze interviews and in-depth neuropsychological tests performed on nearly 3,500 people over age 65 enrolled in the Health and Retirement Study (a long-term research program organized by the National Institute on Aging and the Social Security Administration). The study authors randomly selected participants who had their brain testing done between June 2016 and October 2017.

Overall, they found that one in three American adults over age 65 had signs of either dementia or cognitive decline.

  • 10% had dementia. Symptoms include memory loss, confusion, trouble speaking or understanding or sharing thoughts, or difficulty reading and writing, the National Institutes of Health explains. This may impact balance and increase risk of falls or hallucinations. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia; mini strokes or other brain trauma can lead to the condition as well.
  • 22% had mild cognitive impairment. This is defined by the Alzheimer’s Association as an early stage of memory loss or brain decline that’s significant enough to be noticed by themselves or others, but not severe enough to impact daily activities. Forgetting appointments or conversations, difficulty with decisions and trouble knowing the proper sequence of events are some of the possible symptoms of mild cognitive impairment.

They compared the cognition results with data about age, race, education level and more to see if they could spot any commonalities or general trends among those with decreased cognition. People who had less than a high school education were more likely to have dementia and mild cognitive impairment. Additionally, the older the individual, the higher their risk for both conditions. (About 3% of those aged 65 to 69 tested positive for dementia, while 35% of those 90 did.) The scientists noticed no significant difference in risk levels based on gender.

15 Ways Reduce Your Risk For Cognitive Decline

These findings paint a fairly pessimistic picture about Americans’ collective brain health, true. There’s also another very important wrinkle that we can’t overlook: Genetics. A family history certainly impacts our brain health—and overall chronic disease risk—over the lifespan, but our daily habits play a big part, too.

The good news is that not all individuals with mild cognitive impairment (the 22% in this study) necessarily develop dementia. A February 2022 study published in the journal Neurology, for example, reported that about one in three women over age 75 who had signs of mild cognitive impairment were able to reverse their condition so they were no longer trending toward dementia.

Since we can’t change our genetics and since researchers are still searching for a cure for dementia, neurologists often recommend focusing on “modifiable risk factors,” or keeping tabs on lifestyle habits that have been scientifically-proven to be related to cognition.

With that in mind, we dove into the Alzheimer’s Association’s risk reduction and prevention guides, as well as other recent research we’ve covered here on EatingWell, and have your hot 15 list of brain-boosting tips.

The Bottom Line

Cognitive decline is surprisingly common among American adults age 65 and up. About one in every 10 older adults has been diagnosed with dementia, and nearly one in four is experiencing mild cognitive impairment.

Since there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, it’s important to focus on modifiable risk factors to keep your keen intellect, memory and attention for as much of your lifespan as possible.