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8 Surprising Signs You Could Be at Higher Risk for Memory Problems

The health of your gut, eyes, mouth and more can affect the health of your brain


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Photo Collage: AARP; (Source: Getty Images)

As researchers learn more about the aging brain, one thing is clear: brain health is not just a neck-up problem.

“What’s becoming better appreciated is that the risk of developing brain diseases is linked to the health of the [other] organs,” says Constantino Iadecola, M.D., a neurologist and chair of the Feil Family Brain and Mind Research Institute at Weill Cornell Medicine. “The whole story is not the brain.”

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Indeed, the health of your heart, gut, eyes — even your mouth — can impact your brain and may affect your risk for developing thinking and memory problems as you age.

Here are eight warning signs that you could be at higher than average risk for cognitive issues, according to the latest research.

1. You snore 

If you snore a lot — or your partner tells you that you do — it might be time to get it checked out. Snoring, gasping and snorting during sleep can be warning signs of sleep apnea, a condition where people intermittently stop and restart breathing during sleep. When left untreated, sleep apnea has been linked to increased dementia risks.

Evidence is mounting. A preliminary study released March 3 by the American Academy of Neurology found that people who reported sleep apnea symptoms were about 50 percent more likely to also report having memory or thinking problems compared to people who did not have sleep apnea symptoms.

“During those [nonbreathing] phases of apnea, your brain doesn’t get enough oxygen,” Iadecola says. “Day in and day out, the brain is going to pay a toll for it.”

According to AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health, “proper treatment of sleep apnea can improve sleep at night, reduce daytime sleepiness, serve to improve cognition and slow cognitive decline.” A CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine is the most common treatment for sleep apnea.

2. You don’t floss  

Taking care of your teeth is important for a pretty smile — but that’s not all. Researchers have uncovered a link between oral health and brain health.

A study published in July 2023 in the journal Neurology found that gum disease and tooth loss were linked to brain shrinkage in the area of the brain that plays a role in memory, known as the hippocampus. And previous research led by scientists at the National Institutes on Aging and published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that older adults with signs of gum disease and mouth infections were more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

A 2022 analysis of 47 studies reached a similar conclusion: Poor periodontal health was associated with both cognitive decline and dementia.

A possible explanation for this association is chronic inflammation caused by bacteria in the mouth, which can travel through the bloodstream and into the brain. Inflammation is thought to play a role in the development and progression of dementia.

3. You eat a lot of junk food 

Ultra-processed foods — packaged snacks, frozen dinners and fast-food favorites — may be tasty, but research suggests they aren’t doing your brain any favors. A study that appeared in the February 2023 issue of JAMA Neurology found that people who took in a higher share of calories from ultra-processed foods were more likely to experience cognitive decline.

Similarly, a 2022 study from the journal Neurology found that when people increased the amount of ultra-processed foods they consumed, their risk for dementia went up. However, when the junk food was replaced by unprocessed or minimally processed foods, their risk for dementia decreased. 

“Ultra-processed foods are meant to be convenient and tasty, but they diminish the quality of a person’s diet,” study author Huiping Li said in a statement. “These foods may also contain food additives or molecules from packaging or produced during heating, all of which have been shown in other studies to have negative effects on thinking and memory skills.”

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4. You’re having trouble hearing   

If you’ve noticed it’s getting harder to hear, it’s time to make an appointment with a health care provider. Researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found in a 2023 JAMA study that moderate to severe hearing loss was associated with a higher prevalence of dementia among a nationally representative sample of older adults in the U.S. Hearing aid use, however, was associated with lower dementia prevalence.

Previous studies have reached similar conclusions. NIH-funded research, published in 2023 in The Lancet, found that hearing aids reduced the rate of cognitive decline in older adults who are at high risk for developing dementia by almost 50 percent over a three-year period.

You use the brain to process what you hear, says Douglas Scharre, M.D., professor of clinical neurology and psychiatry at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. So when there’s hearing loss, “you’re going to reduce your stimulation to the brain,” he says.

Another factor that can affect brain health is the social isolation that often accompanies hearing loss. People who have a hard time hearing tend to pull away from conversations and social interactions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that social isolation in older adults is associated with a roughly 50 percent increased risk of dementia.  

Hearing loss is very treatable in later life, which makes it an important public health target to reduce risk of cognitive decline and dementia,” hearing expert Frank Lin, M.D., a researcher on both of the above studies, said in a statement. “Until we know more, we recommend for general health and well-being that older adults have their hearing checked regularly and any hearing issues properly addressed.” 

5. You are skipping your workouts

Yet another reason to get up and move your body: Multiple studies have found that regular exercise may slash your risk of memory loss. For example, a 2022 meta-analysis published in the journal Neurology found that study participants who participated in physical activities — biking, walking, running, swimming, yoga, dancing and more — had a 17 percent lower risk of dementia than physically inactive participants.

Another study, published in JAMA Neurology, found an association between walking and dementia risk. Older adults who got in just under 10,000 steps a day — 9,800 — were 50 percent less likely to develop dementia. And most recently, a 2024 study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that adults who exercised had bigger brains than those who didn’t.

“Physical exercise is a great brain activity,” Scharre says.

No need to start training for a marathon: Research suggests even light physical activity has brain benefits. And don’t forget about strength and balance exercises — these are especially important for older adults who are at higher risk for falling. According to the CDC, falls are the most common cause of TBI, or traumatic brain injury, which can affect thinking and memory skills and can increase the risk of developing dementia.  

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6. You missed your last eye exam

Around 100,000 cases of dementia may have been prevented if vision problems were corrected, a study published in JAMA Neurology found. The authors of the 2022 study, funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), also note that about 80 percent of vision problems occur in adults 50 years and older, and 90 percent of cases are preventable or can be treated.

Like hearing loss, vision loss can result in a reduction in brain stimulation and social isolation, researchers say. People over 60 should get an eye exam every year or two, according to the NIA.

7. You’re not regular

Constipation is not uncommon, especially among older adults. But new research suggests that being backed up may not be good for the brain.

A study presented at the 2023 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference linked less frequent bowel movements with worsening cognitive function. Researchers found that compared to people who had daily bowel movements, people who were constipated (had bowel movements every three days or longer) had brains that aged the equivalent of three years faster.

This adds to other research linking gut health to brain health. A large observational study published in the journal Gut found that people with inflammatory bowel disease were more than twice as likely to develop dementia than those without it.

The gut-brain connection is an area that scientists are actively studying. In the meantime, experts say if you’re experiencing irregularity, talk to your doctor about fixing the issue — it could be as simple as an adjustment to your diet or medications. What’s more, fermented foods and foods that are high in fiber — fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains — can help to build a healthy gut, the Mayo Clinic says.

8. You don’t get enough sleep 

Mounting evidence shows just how important sleep is for the brain. Recently, a study published in December 2023 in JAMA Network Open found that adults who sleep less than 7 hours a night had a significantly higher risk of cognitive impairment, which can include difficulties thinking, remembering and making decisions. An earlier study, published in 2022, from researchers at Harvard Medical School, found that older adults who slept less than 5 hours a night were twice as likely to develop dementia than those who got 6 to 8 hours of sleep each night.

Some evidence suggests that a “housekeeping” process could explain the link between lack of sleep and worsening memory. During sleep, toxins get flushed from the brain, including beta-amyloid, which is a protein in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease.  “It could be that by limiting the time the brain has got to get rid of waste, you may end up [accumulating] things you don’t want in your brain,” Iadecola says.

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