How often do you think how much of a gift it is to be able to remember the random items you have to add to your basket at the supermarket without a frame? Or the fact that you can still sing along every single lyrics from Lizzo’s first album? Or how about the memories of your last birthday, Thanksgiving, or even the names of the people who sat at your table?
For a significant portion of Americans—for people with dementia—many or all of those tasks are a serious challenge. Three weeks ago, a new study estimated that 1 in 10 American seniors has dementia and another 22% have mild cognitive impairment (which can progress to full-blown dementia).
But thanks to new research published in the journal Nov. 7, 2022 Procedures of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)we may be seeing a slightly more optimistic trend in terms of our collective brain health. Dementia rates have actually fallen among people over 65, from 12.2% of the population in 2000 to just 8.5% in 2016.
Find out why these two studies can be true at the same time, and explore how you can stay sharp and be part of that positive, cognitively sharp trend.
Related: The Best Way to Reduce Your Risk of Dementia, Even If You Have a Family History
What this new brain health report found
To reach this conclusion, researchers drew on data from 21,000 people who participated in the Health and Retirement Study, a large, representative nationwide study that has been conducted for 20 years. After crunching the numbers, the researchers found that the age-adjusted prevalence of dementia for people age 65 and older was just over 12% in 2000. Just over 1 in 10 American older adults had dementia at the time. In 2016, this percentage had fallen to 8.5%, a decrease of 3.7 percentage points or about 30%.
The decline in dementia rates appeared to be particularly strong between 2000 and 2004, the scientists note, and among black men. The prevalence of dementia fell by 7% among black men compared to a 3% decrease among those who completed the survey and identified themselves as white men.
Although the rate of dementia among female participants also fell between 2000 and 2016 – from 13.6% to just under 10% – women continue to have higher rates of dementia overall than men (whose rates fell from about 10% to 7% ). The researchers hypothesize that this disparity may be related to how estrogen affects the brain during menopause, though more research is needed.
Higher overall education levels and lower rates of smoking in the US may be a factor in this collective decline in dementia prevalence, but pinpointing the exact cause of dementia is difficult. In most cases, it’s a melting pot of risk factors, including high blood pressure, inactivity, a diet low in whole foods, poor sleep, and more.
So how can this study indicate an overall decline, when that earlier study – and CDC data, which estimates that 5 million adults had dementia in 2014, and predicts it will grow to about 14 million by 2060 – are both true?
Because we live longer. There is a greater number of Americans living to old age than in previous generations (which is good news!), which means that a higher proportion of senior citizens now make up a larger portion of our total US population.
How to reduce your risk of dementia
Regardless of the exact number of people with dementia or the prevalence rate, the most important thing to take away from this story is that you are in control of some of your own risk of dementia. Genetic factors certainly influence our brain health – and our overall risk of chronic disease – but our daily habits also play a big role.
Since it’s impossible to rewrite our family history and scientists are still searching for a cure for dementia, it makes sense to focus on modifiable risk factors, or the lifestyle habits we can control that have been proven to be linked to brain health.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association Risk Reduction and Prevention Guides, here are 10 healthy strategies that can boost your brain:
Eat a nutritious, balanced diet low in refined carbohydrates and plenty of dietary fiber (the DASH diet, the Mediterranean diet, and the MIND diet are all smart choices)
Manage your blood pressure
Monitor your cholesterol levels
Aim for a stable blood sugar range
Move your body
Don’t smoke and talk to your doctor about help to quit if you do
Try to stay socially connected
Limit alcohol consumption
Hurry up for 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night
Challenge the brain through puzzles, games, reading, music or other hobbies
It comes down to
A new report on Americans’ brain health found that the percentage of people age 65 and older with dementia has decreased by about a third. However, as more Americans are living longer, the total number of people with cognitive problems is higher than in decades past. Certain groups, including those who responded to the survey labeled as women, showed less of a drop in rates than those who responded as men.
Regardless of your gender identity or genetics, incorporating healthy lifestyle habits can help reduce your risk of dementia and strengthen your brainpower.
Next: Do you have a family history of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease? Here’s how to protect your brain as you age