Basic facts about the importance of promoting brain health and modifiable risk factors.

⏱ 3 min read

Why is brain health important?

Promoting brain health is important because our brain is the control centre of our body and plays a critical role in our overall well-being. The brain controls everything from our thoughts, learning and memory, language, visual and spatial ability, emotions, and behaviour; to our movement, senses, and bodily functions. Maintaining good brain health can help prevent or delay the onset of cognitive decline and brain diseases such as Alzheimer disease.

Recent research has shown that there are several actions you can take to promote brain health and delay or prevent cognitive impairment.

It is never too early or too late to reduce your risk of dementia.

What can affect your brain health?

Brain health can be affected by age-related changes in the brain, injuries such as stroke or traumatic brain injury, disorders such as depression, substance use disorders or addiction, and diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. While some factors affecting brain health cannot be changed, there are many lifestyle changes that might make a difference.

What do we mean by dementia risk reduction?

There are three main ways we think of dementia risk reduction:

  1. Decreasing the lifetime risk of dementia
  2. Delaying the onset
  3. Possibly slowing the progression (this is sometimes called ‘secondary prevention’, as the person already has the disease)

What do we mean by risk factors?

A risk factor is something that increases the chance of developing a disease. We can divide risk factors for dementia into two kinds: non-modifiable and modifiable.

Non-modifiable risk factors are ones that are outside of your control, like your age or your genetic make-up. Modifiable risks are ones that you can do something about, and we’re going to focus on those in this detailed overview.

The impact of lifestyle on brain health

Recent research has shown that there are several actions you can take to promote brain health and delay or prevent cognitive impairment. These actions relate to modifiable risk factors that you can change through healthy lifestyle behaviours.

What are the important modifiable risk factors for dementia?

Modifiable risk factors are the behaviours, lifestyle choices, and health conditions that can be changed in order to reduce the risk of developing certain diseases or health problems. These risk factors include things like smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise, excessive alcohol consumption, and high blood pressure, among others. By making changes to these modifiable risk factors, you can improve your overall health and reduce your risk of developing certain diseases or health problems like dementia and cancer.

How much can I reduce the risk?

This is an active area of research, but The Lancet Commission identified several modifiable risk factors that might prevent or delay up to 40% of dementias. Two other recent studies found that engaging in 2-3 healthy lifestyle behaviours could lower your risk of Alzheimer disease by 37%, while doing 4-5 healthy behaviours could lower your risk by 60%. The behaviours were ≥ 150 minutes/week of moderate/vigourous-intensity physical activity, not smoking, not drinking too much alcohol, a high-quality Mediterranean type of diet, and engagement in cognitive activities.

So, the more of these factors you can incorporate into your life, the better it is for your overall brain health.

Modifiable risk factors aren’t the only type of risk factors for dementia, there are also ‘non-modifiable’ ones. Non-modifiable risk factors are ones that can’t be changed like aging, family history, or genetics. For example, the odds of developing dementia increases with age; and there are a small number of dementias that run in families and are often associated with particular genes. 

It’s important to remember that most cases of dementia aren’t related to family history or specific genetic disorders. And a significant amount of dementia may be associated with several modifiable risk factors. There are also certain environmental factors – such as lower levels of education in early life – that are important things for us to try to address as a society, but might not be things that you can modify now.

Ways to promote brain health

In the following sections, we’re going to focus on those things that you can change to promote brain health, where there is evidence of dementia risk reduction. Many of these factors are also associated with other health benefits, such as reducing your risk of cancer or other chronic diseases.


The World Health Organization and the Lancet Commission and others have examined the evidence and made recommendations for several ways in which people can promote brain health and reduce their risk of developing dementia. These include the following topics, that we’ll be covering below:

  • Physical activity, sedentary behaviour, and sleep
  • Weight management, diet, and nutrition
  • Blood vessel health
  • Smoking and alcohol
  • Cognitive (brain) and social activity
  • Hearing loss
  • Other health conditions and medication adverse effects.


    Key points from this topic

    • There are several healthy lifestyle changes that you can do to promote brain health and reduce your risk of dementia.
    • The more you can implement, the better.
    • These healthy lifestyle habits are good for your overall health in addition to promoting brain health and reducing your risk of other chronic conditions like cancer.


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    Six Ways to Promote Brain Health

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    What other people are saying:

    "This study has been a real eye-opener, as it has educated and informed me on concepts I previously did not associate with the risk of developing dementia." - Study participant, 25-34 years old.

    "Informative, not overwhelming. It helped me to consider my own actions and allowed me to talk to my older parents to encourage them to be more proactive about their health." - Study participant, 35-44 years old.

    "This is a very timely topic as I look around and see friends and relatives coping with the effects of dementia." - Study participant, 65-74 years old.

    "Each topic was well focussed. The medical terminology was easy to understand and very informative." - Study participant, 65-74 years old.

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    Anthony Levinson(SQUARE)_jpg

    Anthony J. Levinson, MD, MSc, FRCPC

    Neuropsychiatrist, Professor; Faculty of Health Sciences, McMaster University

    About this Project

    Who authored and edited this page?

    This page was developed by the Division of e-Learning Innovation team and Dr. Anthony J. Levinson, MD, FRCPC (Psychiatry). Dr. Levinson is a psychiatrist and professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behaviour Neurosciences, Faculty of Health Sciences, McMaster University. He is the Director of the Division of e-Learning Innovation, as well as the John Evans Chair in Health Sciences Educational Research at McMaster. He practices Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry, with a special focus on dementia and neuropsychiatry. He is also the co-developer of the iGeriCare.ca dementia care partner resource, and one of the co-leads for the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal. He and his team are passionate about developing high-quality digital content to improve people's understanding about health. By the way, no computer-generated content was used on this page. Specifically, a real human (me) wrote and edited this page without the help of generative AI like ChatGPT or Bing's new AI or otherwise.

    Are there any important disclosures or conflicts of interest?

    Dr. Levinson receives funding from McMaster University as part of his research chair. He has also received several grants for his work from not-for-profit granting agencies. He has no conflicts of interest with respect to the pharmaceutical industry; and there were no funds from industry used in the development of this website.

    When was it last reviewed?

    August 22, 2023

    What references and evidence were used to create this content?

    Content was written and adapted based on credible, high-quality, non-biased sources such as MedlinePlus, the National Institutes for Mental Health, the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal, the American Psychiatric Association, the Cochrane Library, the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health (CAMH) and others. In particular, evidence-based content about dementia risk reduction was also derived from the World Health Organization and the Lancet Commission reports. Please see additional references on the e-learning lesson landing page

    Who funded it?

    The initial development of some of this content was funded by the Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation, powered by Baycrest. Subsequent funding was through support from the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal, with support from the Labarge Optimal Aging Initiative, the Faculty of Health Sciences, and the McMaster Institute for Research on Aging (MIRA) at McMaster University, and the Public Health Agency of Canada. There are no conflicts of interest to declare. There was no industry funding for this content.