On May 14 the World Health Organization put out new guidelines on the most effective ways to prevent dementia, or severe, abnormal cognitive decline. The best way to avoid cognitive decline later in life, the group concluded, is not by taking supplements or playing brain games, but by adopting a healthy lifestyle.
The extensive report echoes a lot of what you may hear at your primary health-care providers’ office: regular exercise, a diet rich in plant-based foods and limited in meat, and maintaining healthy blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar all seem to stave off cognitive decline and dementia in older adults. It’s not clear exactly why they do. Scientists have only been able to rely on observational studies of large cohorts of people trying these lifestyle changes, which means that it’s impossible to pinpoint a factor that definitively either causes or prevents dementia. But it’s likely something to do with the fact that all of these lifestyle changes benefit the heart. Heart disease is a known risk factor for cognitive decline, and preventing it may be protective against developing dementia, too.
“Like many colleagues, I already tell my patients that what is good for their hearts is probably good for their brains,” Robert Howard, a psychiatrist at University College London, told the Science Media Center.
Healthy living as outlined in these new guidelines can’t definitively prevent dementia. Scientists are still trying to understand the myriad of causes of the syndrome, and there are certain genetic factors that elevate a person’s risk. Annually, about 10 million people globally will go on to develop dementia, but scientists estimate that roughly a third of all cases could be prevented through healthier lifestyles.
The report refutes the idea that various supplements can prevent cognitive decline. While supplements can be useful for those whose diets cannot provide them all their nutritional needs, for the most part they are useless. Fish oil and gingko supplements have not been found to improve any aspect of health. Additionally, supplements have less rigorous regulations than other medications, and some of them have been found not to contain the advertised active ingredients. “There is currently no evidence to show that taking these supplements actually reduces the risk of cognitive decline and dementia, and in fact, we know that in high doses these can be harmful,” Neerja Chowdhary, a mental health practitioner with the World Health Organization, told the AP.
As for brain games, there’s little evidence that they actually prevent any kind of cognitive decline.
The good news is that, at least theoretically, adopting a healthy lifestyle should be accessible to everyone. It certainly won’t hurt your overall health, and it’s possible to start any day. However, it requires dedication: Changing your routine to incorporate different foods and daily exercise may be harder to do than taking a few pills or playing a game.