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Every-Day Mistakes that Sabotage Your Brain

Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are top concerns for my aging patients. Many of them lost one or both of their parents to the disease. Some have lost a grandparent or two to it.

If you’ve experienced this type of loss, you might feel like you have a target on your back… that you’re next in line.

Well I’ll tell you the truth. While you may be at higher genetic risk of the disease, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are a prime candidate for it. I always explain to my patient that it’s not genetics that count the most… it’s how you live your life.

A 2018 study in JAMA agreed with my assessment. It found that people with the highest genetic risk of dementia who participated in a healthy lifestyle had a 32% lower risk of developing the disorder than those who lived unhealthy lives.

This means that if dementia runs in your family, it’s more important than ever to make positive changes in your life. And not surprisingly, the JAMA article agrees wholeheartedly with the same lifestyle choices I recommend.

Four of the most healthful activities that can help slash your chances of dementia, even if it runs in your family include:

  • Getting at least 150 minutes of moderate activity – or 75 minutes of vigorous activity – each week.
  • Increasing your intake of fruits, non-starchy vegetables, nuts, legumes and fish. At the same time, it’s vital to decrease your consumption of red meats, processed meats, and foods rich in refined grains, starch, added sugars, salt and trans fats.
  • Limiting alcohol consumption to the recommended intake of 14g daily for women and 28g daily for men.
  • Not smoking.

These healthy behaviors are common sense. Not only do they protect you against Alzheimer’s and dementia. They are also great advice for anyone wishing to avoid heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer and pretty much any other chronic disease.

A 2020 study published in Neurology had similar results. It found that people who did not smoke, engaged in regular physical activity, had light-to-moderate alcohol consumption, ate a Mediterranean or DASH style diet, and participated in late-life cognitive activities had a 60% reduced risk of Alzheimer’s dementia.

So there you have it, everything you need to know to protect your brain health.

Or maybe not…

Every-Day Mistakes that Sabotage Your Brain

Neither of the studies I mentioned above took into account the effects of some of the not-so-obvious factors that could easily sabotage your brain saving efforts. And I would be remiss if I did not share them with you today.

Don’t neglect your sleep. Getting a restful night’s sleep on a regular basis is critical when it comes to the prevention of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

In particular, your brain has a “drainage” system (the glymphatic system) that flips on when you fall asleep. Once it’s activated, large amounts of space (the ventricular highways) open up between the cells of your brain. This allows cerebrospinal fluid to rush between brain cells and pick up toxic waste products.

This process flushes all the garbage accumulated during the day out of your brain, including beta amyloid and tau deposits associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

But if your sleep is interrupted, or if you don’t get enough sleep, this process can’t do its job. This, of course, places you at much higher risk of memory disorders.

You can learn how to get a better night’s sleep here.

Reconsider your use of statin drugs. I have never agreed with statin drug use. LDL cholesterol isn’t the enemy. It’s not even really cholesterol. It’s just a transport system. And your body actually needs it to protect nerves, make healthy cells and produce hormones.

Worse, these drugs come with some severe health effects. They can cause a deadly form of muscle damage called rhabdomyolysis that causes severe muscle pain. And it can directly injure the muscular tissue in your heart.

They can cause serious liver problems, cataracts and increase your chance of developing new onset type 2 diabetes.

But one of the devastating side effects of statins is memory loss and confusion – which can mimic dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Watch out for artificial sweeteners. I frequently warn against drinking diet sodas and eating artificially sweetened foods. Despite popular belief, they actually promote weight gain and diabetes… the two things they are supposed to protect against.

Plus, they nearly double your chances of Alzheimer’s disease or suffering from a stroke that could impair your brain activity.

Common OTC Drugs that Mess with Your Brain

Last, but not least, beware of medications with anticholinergic activity. These drugs block the action of acetylcholine in your brain and are closely linked with higher levels of Alzheimer’s and dementia. And you probably don’t even think twice about taking them on a regular basis.

I’m talking about antihistamines like Benadryl, Mucinex, Sudafed and Contac. Pills that help you sleep, including Sominex, Unisom, Excedrin PM, Tylenol PM and others.

Even heartburn meds like Tagamet and Zantac have weak anticholinergic activity. Plus some prescription bladder, antidepressant and antipsychotic drugs.

Taking a strong anticholinergic for just 60 days can cause memory problems and mild cognitive impairment. Weaker ones can have the same negative impact in as little as 90 days. And what happens when you take them long-term?

One to two years of use increases your chances of dementia by 23%. Taking them for three or more years kicks that risk up into the range of 50 some-odd percent.

While I strongly urge you to find natural solutions for your health concerns, it’s also important for you know that there are other medications that may resolve your issues without increasing your anticholinergic burden.

So if you plan on continuing to take pharmaceuticals, talk to your physician about safer alternatives.


Lourida I, Hannon E, Littlejohns TJ, Langa KM, Hyppönen E, Kuzma E, Llewellyn DJ. Association of Lifestyle and Genetic Risk With Incidence of Dementia. JAMA. 2019 Aug 6;322(5):430-437.

Dhana K, Evans DA, Rajan KB, Bennett DA, Morris MC. Healthy lifestyle and the risk of Alzheimer dementia: Findings from 2 longitudinal studies. Neurology. 2020 Jul 28;95(4):e374-e383.

Winer JR, Mander BA, Helfrich RF, Maass A, Harrison TM, Baker SL, Knight RT, Jagust WJ, Walker MP. Sleep as a potential biomarker of tau and β-amyloid burden in the human brain. J Neurosci. 2019 Jun 17. pii: 0503-19.

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Pase MP, Himali JJ, Beiser AS, Aparicio HJ, Satizabal CL, Vasan RS, Seshadri S, Jacques PF. Sugar- and Artificially Sweetened Beverages and the Risks of Incident Stroke and Dementia: A Prospective Cohort Study. Stroke. 2017. May;48(5):1139-1146.

Coupland CAC, Hill T, Dening T, Morriss R, Moore M, Hippisley-Cox J. Anticholinergic Drug Exposure and the Risk of Dementia: A Nested Case-Control Study. JAMA Intern Med. 2019 Aug 1;179(8):1084-1093.

Gray SL, Anderson ML, Dublin S, Hanlon JT, Hubbard R, Walker R, Yu O, Crane PK, Larson EB. Cumulative use of strong anticholinergics and incident dementia: a prospective cohort study. JAMA Intern Med. 2015 Mar;175(3):401-7.