It seems as if there is new information each week about ways to prevent or delay cognitive decline. Whether from Alzheimer's disease (AD), age or other neurological disorders, no one wants to lose mental function.
Games that claim to improve memory skills, physical exercise, vitamin supplements and prescription medications are all options that have been researched in the quest to find something that will work to hold off memory issues. A new study from the Minnesota Evidence-based Practice Center (EPC) reviewed the research on these measures, and the news was not encouraging.
Mary Butler, one of the study authors and Co-Director of the EPC said it simply, in an interview with the MinnPost, "There is no magic bullet."
It's not all bad news, however. It's more about changing the mindset of adults who are growing older. Everyone seems to think there is one particular intervention that can be undertaken, like doubling down on vitamins or playing a video game that will protect them. There were some parts of the study that included findings that were positive. Butler explained in the MinnPost interview that anything you can control, like better eating habits, exercise, and engagement in cognitive activities are all positive steps that should be incorporated into any healthy lifestyle, but they are not proven to prevent dementia, or anything else.
The analysis of the current research on dementia was conducted at the request of the National Institute on Aging. The Minnesota EPC is a joint venture with scientists and experts from the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis VA Health Care System. It looked at each of four areas that are often the focus of research into dementia and whether or not there was any substantial evidence of preventative measures that would work. The study focused mainly on randomized clinical trials since these kinds of studies are considered to be the highest quality of work in science. Below are the findings in each area.
Prescription medications: Fifty-one clinical trials on medicines for dementia were included in the review. They included medications that were developed for dementia as well as drugs that treated other conditions like hypertension, diabetes, and hormonal imbalances, but none of them showed any real effect. The best hope lies in some of the studies on blood pressure medications.
Vitamins/Supplements: This was a relatively straightforward part of the research. There were 38 clinical trials reviewed that involved vitamins or supplements. None of them showed any real benefit in preventing or putting off the onset of cognitive decline. Everything from vitamins, E, B, D, and C to soy, omega-3s, and ginkgo biloba were included, and none showed any promise.
Brain training: Some of the studies reviewed showed some good news. Some games and brain training activities improved the processing speed of the brain, but this is a different ability than memory, word retrieval and general cognition. Puzzle fans can still enjoy the crosswords, but it likely won't keep Alzheimer's away.
Physical exercise: In the sixteen clinical trials reviewed by Butler's team none showed any evidence that a particular exercise, such as yoga or aerobics, was effective in delaying mental decline. The one study that Butler et al. pointed to as well done was the Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability (FINGER) which showed that a combination of exercise, dietary changes, and brain training did improve cognitive ability among a group of high-risk senior citizens.
Butler summarized her findings by pointing out that the lack of understanding of what exactly causes dementia is the real problem. Once that is understood, it will be easier to find ways to prevent and treat it. Take a look at the video below to learn more about this review.