How to Promote Brain Health

Discover six ways you can promote brain health and reduce your risk of developing dementia.

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Lesson Outline

Dementia is a progressive brain disease that can have an adverse effect on your social activity and physical mobility.

By taking this interactive lesson, you'll learn how managing the following six factors can help to promote brain health and reduce your risk of developing dementia. 

  • physical activity and weight management
  • diet and nutrition
  • blood vessel health
  • smoking and alcohol use
  • brain and social activity
  • other health conditions and drug side effects.

Meet Joan and learn what changes she made to reduce her personal risk of developing dementia.

(Estimated time to complete - 30 minutes)

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Lesson Resources

Six Ways to Promote Brain Health and Reduce Your Risk of Developing Dementia



What is Dementia?

Learn more with this short multimedia lesson from iGeriCare.ca.


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What are the natural changes associated with aging?

As we age, some of our cognitive abilities gradually decline. We can’t remember quite as much when learning new information; we don’t process things quite as fast, and learning more complicated tasks becomes more difficult.  We do, however, continue to make lifelong memories, and even our vocabularies and wisdom may continue to improve into later life. 

The changes associated with aging are subtle.  For instance, somebody forgetting what they ate for breakfast by lunchtime would never be associated with normal aging. Some degree of cognitive decline is normal and expected as we age; but, importantly, the changes associated with normal aging don’t impact an individual’s ability to function independently.

Grandfather and boy

What is dementia?

Dementia is a progressive brain disease that affects our cognition.

Cognition is our ability to interact with the world around us. It includes many important functions, such as:

  • learning and memory - our ability to remember conversations and events or learn new information;
  • language - reading, writing, speaking and understanding;
  • visual and spatial function – how we navigate around our environment;
  • executive function - how we make decisions, solve problems and organize our life; and
  • social function - how we interact appropriately with our family, friends, and colleagues.   

If certain areas of the brain become damaged, one or more of these cognitive functions may be weakened. When a person's cognitive function is weakened to the point that it impairs their ability to function independently day-to-day, then they have developed dementia.

Doctor speaking with older adult and family member

How is dementia diagnosed?

There is no one test to determine if someone has dementia. Health care professionals diagnose the different types of dementia based on:

  • a careful medical history,
  • a physical examination,
  • laboratory tests,
  • pen and paper tests that evaluate cognitive function,
  • the characteristic changes in thinking, day-to-day function and behaviour associated with each different type of dementia.

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DISCLAIMER: Many of our Blog Posts and e-learning lessons were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content identifies activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations, such as social distancing and frequent hand washing. Some of the activities suggested in our Blog Posts and e-learning lessons may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with the current social distancing recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.


Anthony Levinson

Anthony J. Levinson, MD, MSc, FRCPC

Neuropsychiatrist, Professor; Faculty of Health Sciences, McMaster University

Sztramko, Richard

Richard Sztramko, MD, FRCPC

Geriatrician, Assistant Professor; Faculty of Health Sciences, McMaster University

About this Project

The latest scientific evidence on this topic, including the World Health Organization's (WHO) 2019 Guideline for Risk Reduction of Cognitive Decline and Dementia, was used to develop this learning resource. In the development of the WHO's guidelines, AMSTAR was used to assess the quality of existing systematic reviews and the GRADE methodology was used to develop the evidence profiles.

The content of this resource was reviewed and assessed for accuracy by our team of experts in geriatrics and mental health. There are no conflicts of interest. A panel of end-users reviewed the content and provided feedback on their user experience.  This resource was first published on July 16, 2020, and was adapted from the "How to Promote Brain Health" lesson on iGeriCare.ca.

If you have questions or comments related to this resource please contact us at info@mcmasteroptimalaging.org.

References by Topic

The scientific references for each topic area are outlined below:

Physical Activity & Weight Management: References 1–6

Diet & Nutrition: References 6–10

Vitamins, Supplements & Anti-Oxidants: References 11,12

Coconut Oil: Reference 12

Blood Vessel Health: Reference 3

Smoking & Alcohol Use: References 6,13–18

Brain Activity: References 3,6,19–24

Social Activity: References 3,25–27

Health Conditions & Drug Side Effects: References 3,28–34


1.        Szuhany KL, Bugatti M, Otto MW. A meta-analytic review of the effects of exercise on brain-derived neurotrophic factor. J Psychiatr Res. 2015;60:56-64. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychires.2014.10.003

2.        Hamer M, Chida Y. Physical activity and risk of neurodegenerative disease: a systematic review of prospective evidence. Psychol Med. 2009;39(1):3-11. doi:DOI: 10.1017/S0033291708003681

3.        WHO. Risk Reduction of Cognitive Decline and Dementia: WHO Guidelines. 2019. https://www.who.int/mental_health/neurology/dementia/risk_reduction_gdg_meeting/en/.

4.        Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology. Physical Activity Training for Health. 2017:1-5. www.csep.ca/guidelines.

5.        Northey JM, Cherbuin N, Pumpa KL, Smee DJ, Rattray B. Exercise interventions for cognitive function in adults older than 50: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med. 2018;52(3):154 LP - 160. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2016-096587

6.        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. doi:10.1212/WNL.0000000000009816

7.        Petersson SD, Philippou E. Mediterranean Diet, Cognitive Function, and Dementia: A Systematic Review of the Evidence. Adv Nutr. 2016;7(5):889-904. doi:10.3945/an.116.012138

8.        Berti V, Walters M, Sterling J, et al. Mediterranean diet and 3-year Alzheimer brain biomarker changes in middle-aged adults. Neurology. 2018;90(20):e1789-e1798. doi:10.1212/WNL.0000000000005527

9.        Baycrest. Which Foods Help the Brain: Brain Health Food Guide. https://www.baycrest.org/Baycrest_Centre/media/content/form_files/BHFG_optimized.pdf.

10.      Morris MC, Tangney CC, Wang Y, Sacks FM, Bennett DA, Aggarwal NT. MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimers Dement. 2015;11(9):1007-1014. doi:10.1016/j.jalz.2014.11.009

11.      Rutjes AWS, Denton DA, Di Nisio M, et al. Vitamin and mineral supplementation for maintaining cognitive function in cognitively healthy people in mid and late life. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018;(12). doi:10.1002/14651858.CD011906.pub2

12.      Swaminathan A, Jicha GA. Nutrition and prevention of Alzheimer’s dementia. Front Aging Neurosci. 2014;6:282. doi:10.3389/fnagi.2014.00282

13.      Schwarzinger M, Pollock BG, Hasan OSM, Dufouil C, Rehm J. Contribution of alcohol use disorders to the burden of dementia in France 2008-13: a  nationwide retrospective cohort study. Lancet Public Heal. 2018;3(3):e124-e132. doi:10.1016/S2468-2667(18)30022-7

14.      Peters R, Poulter R, Warner J, Beckett N, Burch L, Bulpitt C. Smoking, dementia and cognitive decline in the elderly, a systematic review. BMC Geriatr. 2008;8:36. doi:10.1186/1471-2318-8-36

15.      Vingtdeux V, Dreses-Werringloer U, Zhao H, Davies P, Marambaud P. Therapeutic potential of resveratrol in Alzheimer’s disease. BMC Neurosci. 2008;9 Suppl 2(Suppl 2):S6. doi:10.1186/1471-2202-9-S2-S6

16.      Braidy N, Jugder B-E, Poljak A, et al. Resveratrol as a Potential Therapeutic Candidate for the Treatment and Management of  Alzheimer’s Disease. Curr Top Med Chem. 2016;16(17):1951-1960. doi:10.2174/1568026616666160204121431

17.      Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction. Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines. https://www.ccsa.ca/sites/default/files/2019-09/2012-Canada-Low-Risk-Alcohol-Drinking-Guidelines-Brochure-en.pdf.

18.      Butt P, Beirness D, Gliksman L, Paradis C, Stockwell T. Alcohol and Health in Canada: A Summary of Evidence and Guidelines for Low-Risk Drinking. 2011. http://www.ccsa.ca.

19.      Stern Y. Cognitive reserve in ageing and Alzheimer’s disease. Lancet Neurol. 2012;11(11):1006-1012. doi:10.1016/S1474-4422(12)70191-6

20.      Gheysen F, Poppe L, DeSmet A, et al. Physical activity to improve cognition in older adults: can physical activity programs enriched with cognitive challenges enhance the effects? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2018;15(1):63. doi:10.1186/s12966-018-0697-x

21.      Butler M, McCreedy E, Nelson VA, et al. Does Cognitive Training Prevent Cognitive Decline? Ann Intern Med. 2017;168(1):63-68. doi:10.7326/M17-1531

22.      Miller KJ, Dye R V, Kim J, et al. Effect of a computerized brain exercise program on cognitive performance in older adults. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry Off J Am  Assoc Geriatr Psychiatry. 2013;21(7):655-663. doi:10.1016/j.jagp.2013.01.077

23.      Valenzuela M, Hons M. Can Cognitive Exercise Prevent the Onset of Dementia? Systematic Review of Randomized Clinical Trials with Longitudinal Follow-up. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2009;17(March):3. www.consort-statement.org;

24.      Chiu H-L, Chu H, Tsai J-C, et al. The effect of cognitive-based training for the healthy older people: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. PLoS One. 2017;12(5):e0176742-e0176742. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0176742

25.      Kuiper JS, Zuidersma M, Oude Voshaar RC, et al. Social relationships and risk of dementia: A systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal cohort studies. Ageing Res Rev. 2015;22:39-57. doi:10.1016/j.arr.2015.04.006

26.      Dickens AP, Richards SH, Greaves CJ, Campbell JL. Interventions targeting social isolation in older people: A systematic review. BMC Public Health. 2011;11(1):647. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-11-647

27.      Gates NJ, Rutjes AW, Di Nisio M, et al. Computerised cognitive training for maintaining cognitive function in cognitively healthy people in midlife. Cochrane database Syst Rev. 2019;3(3):CD012278. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD012278.pub2

28.      Saczynski JS, Beiser A, Seshadri S, Auerbach S, Wolf PA, Au R. Depressive symptoms and risk of dementia: the Framingham Heart Study. Neurology. 2010;75(1):35-41. doi:10.1212/WNL.0b013e3181e62138

29.      Prince M, Albanese E, Guerchet M, Prina M. World Alzheimer Report 2014: Dementia and Risk Reduction An Analysis of Protective and Modifiable Factors.; 2014. https://www.alz.co.uk/research/WorldAlzheimerReport2014.pdf.

30.      Lin FR, Ferrucci L. Hearing loss and falls among older adults in the United States. Arch Intern Med. 2012;172(4):369-371. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.728

31.      Kim SY, Lim J-S, Kong IG, Choi HG. Hearing impairment and the risk of neurodegenerative dementia: A longitudinal follow-up study using a national sample cohort. Sci Rep. 2018;8(1):15266. doi:10.1038/s41598-018-33325-x

32.      Gurgel RK, Ward PD, Schwartz S, Norton MC, Foster NL, Tschanz JT. Relationship of hearing loss and dementia: a prospective, population-based study. Otol Neurotol. 2014;35(5):775-781. doi:10.1097/MAO.0000000000000313

33.      Medic G, Wille M, Hemels ME. Short- and long-term health consequences of sleep disruption. Nat Sci Sleep. 2017;9:151-161. doi:10.2147/NSS.S134864


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