I just came across a study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) a body of experts that advises for governmental policy on pressing issues. The study, called Preventing Cognitive Decline and Dementia: A Way Forward, looked at all the evidence there is on preventing dementia with certain actions or strategies. The 3 specific strategies they looked at were 1) brain training exercises, 2) blood pressure management, and 3) physical exercise. The bottom line was that the researchers found that there was encouraging information about these strategies, but not enough conclusive evidence to base a nation-wide educational campaign recommending these things as ways to avoid dementia. Sounds all-in-all disappointing, but it’s important to realize that there’s a high bar to a national recommendation from this organization.
In my view it’s interesting enough that the NAS, as well as the National Institute on Aging, which initiated the study, picked these items to review. The scientific community believes that mental and cognitive activity can help delay the symptoms of dementia through building and maintaining cognitive reserve: training the brain to function better like training a runner for a race. Clinicians and scientists also believe that avoiding additional injury to the brain from blood vessel disease through exercise and blood pressure control is also beneficial. But hard science on these things is hard to do and the high quality evidence we use for, say, testing a new drug may not be easy to come by.
While the NAS could not issue formal recommendations based on the research, they did not want to send a message that these efforts are not necessary. In their conclusion they state:
“The subject of this report is a vibrant, dynamic research area whose story is not complete. The fact that the report does not strongly support a public health campaign focused on actively promoting adoption of any type of intervention should not be taken to reflect a lack of progress or prospects for preventing or delaying the discussed conditions. Clinical trials and other studies have yielded encouraging data for some interventions, and the public should have access to this information to inform choices on how to invest time and resources to maintain brain health with aging.”
Other areas they recommended studying for prevention of dementia were: new antidementia treatments that can delay onset or slow disease progression, diabetes treatment, depression treatment, dietary interventions, lipid-lowering treatment/statins, sleep quality interventions, social engagement interventions, and vitamin B12 plus folic acid supplementation.
Like cognitive activity, exercise and blood pressure control, tackling any of these issues that apply to you may help delay dementia. Even though the science is not strong enough to say it’s proved, these things are good for overall health and well-being.