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Approximately 55 million people are living with dementia across the globe, reports the World Health Organization (WHO). And as the proportion of older adults continues to increase worldwide, experts anticipate global dementia rates will rise to 78 million in 2030, and 139 million by 2050.

Adopting healthy lifestyle habits can help protect your cognitive health—but one thing may be increasing your dementia risk, in spite of your efforts. Read on to find out what 58 percent of Americans are doing that spikes their chance of developing dementia, and how you can avoid it.

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What you eat can significantly impact your brain health.

You’ve likely heard that the foods you choose to put on your plate can affect your heart health and your risk of chronic diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. But diet also plays a critical factor in our brain health and cognitive function.

Eating plenty of whole foods high in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants can nourish your brain and protect it from oxidative stress, which is a major driver of chronic inflammation. Inflammation can damage cells and lead to the two main types of dementia—Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.

Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, registered dietitian and author of 2-Day Diabetes Diet, tells Best Life, “Eating a well-balanced diet rich in fiber, plant-based fats, and antioxidants may help to promote brain health. Adding more fruits and vegetables to the diet along with nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, and fatty fish can offer protective benefits to the brain and organs such as the heart.”

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Fifty-eight percent of Americans are increasing their dementia risk by doing this.

Adding a teaspoon of sugar to your morning coffee or indulging in a sweet treat on occasion may seem harmless, but doing so could mean you’re among the 58 percent of Americans consuming too much added sugar, thereby increasing your risk of developing dementia.

According to the USDA, most of us exceed the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) recommendation to limit added sugar intake to less than 10 percent of total daily calories. Alarmingly, people in the U.S. consume over 25 teaspoons of sugar per day on average, getting 20 percent of their daily calories from sugar.

“Excessive intake of added sugar in the diet can lead to multiple health concerns,” says Palinski-Wade. “In addition, large amounts of added sugar in the diet can lead to spikes in insulin levels, increasing insulin resistance over time. Insulin resistance in the body is linked to a decline in cognitive function and an increased risk of dementia.”

Sugar-sweetened beverages can spike dementia risk.

Sodas, energy drinks, iced teas, fancy lattes—these popular beverages may be fun to consume, but that enjoyment comes at a price.

A 2021 study published in The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease found that higher consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages was associated with an increased risk of all dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and stroke. Researchers recruited over 1,800 participants and determined that those who drank one to seven servings per week of beverages with added sugar had a substantially higher risk of dementia than those who drank sugar-free beverages. The risk was even higher for those who consumed more than seven servings of sugary drinks per week.

“The excess calories from added sugar in beverages can lead to gains in fat mass, specifically visceral fat (belly fat). As this fat accumulates, the body becomes more insulin-resistant,” explains Palinski-Wade. “Eating large amounts of added sugar at one time can lead to spikes in blood glucose levels as well as insulin, which over time can increase insulin resistance in the body’s cells, and ultimately heighten dementia risk.”

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Keep your added sugar intake down by avoiding these foods.

The worst culprits for added sugars are processed foods like candy, soda, pastries, and desserts. However, added sugar also hides in condiments, salad dressings, cereals, soups, and lunch meats. Your best bet for protecting your brain health and lowering your dementia risk is to eliminate these foods from your diet. Instead, eat an abundance of plant-based whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.

Keeping your added sugar intake within an acceptable range is essential for cognitive health. “The goal for added sugar is to keep it to less than 10 percent of your total daily calories,” Palinski-Wade says. “By eating more whole foods and fewer processed foods, you can begin to reduce added sugars. Read food labels and be on the lookout for added sugar sources,” she advises.