Your brain is one of a kind.

There are few things on earth as powerful, mysterious, and awe-inspiring as the human brain. Our cognitive abilities decide so much about the quality of our lives—from our decision making abilities to our emotional aptitude.

That’s why it’s so important to take care of your brain. You only get one.

As we get older, our cognitive abilities can start to fade or slip away. In the worst cases, adults can develop some type of dementia.

We think of dementia as an illness itself, but dementia is actually a high-level term that describes a group of symptoms caused by disorders affecting the brain. These disorders include Alzheimer’s, Vascular dementia, and Dementia with Lewy Bodies (DLB).

Dementia is used to describe the symptoms of these disorders, which can include:

  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty completing tasks
  • Communication challenges
  • Disorientation
  • Misplacing or losing items
  • Difficulty with abstract thinking
  • Changes in mood or personality
  • Loss of enthusiasm or interest in activities

It’s estimated that 4.7 million people aged 65 and older in the U.S. live with Alzheimer’s disease, which accounts for 60-80% of all causes of dementia.

Whether you’re looking out for your own health or concerned about a loved one growing older, there are steps you can take when you’re younger to prevent the symptoms of dementia.

Here are a few choices you can make now to reduce your risk of dementia:

  1. Avoid smokingThere is strong evidence to suggest a link between smoking cigarettes and dementia. Dementia is often caused by problems with your body’s vascular system, which consists of your heart and blood vessels. Smoking interferes with your body’s ability to maintain this system, and can increase your risk of vascular issues like bleeding in the brain or even strokes.
  2. Limit your alcohol intakeExcessive drinking has many short- and long-term effects on your health, and one of the most significants risk is brain damage. That damage can significantly increase your chances of developing dementia. Heavy drinking reduces the volume of your brain’s white matter, which is how your brain transmits signals between its regions. That reduction in white matter can limit your brain’s ability to function. To stay safe and keep your brain happy, stick to moderate drinking levels.
  3. Make walking a part of your lifeResearch shows that people who move briskly at least 3 times a week show healthy brain activity. Regular physical activity, even something as low-impact as walking, improves your cardiovascular health and can lower your blood pressure. According to studies from the Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation, regular physical exercise can reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s by up to 50%.
  4. Eat a diet that’s balanced, and focused on whole foodsPeople with diets heavy in saturated fats, salt, and sugar are at a higher risk of developing dementia. These food groups, when consumed heavily over time, can increase your blood pressure and cholesterol and lead to obesity or diabetes. These factors will put you at a much higher risk of developing dementia. To avoid these risks, maintain a balanced diet with an emphasis on whole foods like leafy greens, fruits, whole grains, and white meat or fish.
  5. Be careful with your medicationsEven some OTC medications have been linked to dementia diagnoses, including Benadryl, Dramamine, and Advil PM. According to studies, people who habitually take some common allergy and sleep medications show lower brain metabolism and more brain atrophy. They also performed worse on memory tests. To limit your intake of these kinds of medications, try to find more natural or homeopathic remedies for your allergies or sleep issues, like essential oils, teas, supplements, or physical activity.
  6. Find a purpose for your life Illnesses like depression and anxiety have been linked to increased risk of dementia. While we don’t currently have a cure for these sometimes debilitating mental illnesses, there are steps you can take to improve the quality of your life and lower your risk of cognitive impairment in the future. Work with a therapist or counselor to adopt healthy coping mechanisms and seek out the parts of life that bring you satisfaction. Studies show that people who report strong senses of their life’s purpose are 2.4 times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s. Find what makes you happy, and find ways to handle what makes you upset, and you can increase the chances your live a healthy, memory-filled life.