Seeking to protect brain health? You can save hundreds of dollars a year and enhance the health of your brain and body by ignoring the myriad unproven claims for anti-dementia supplements and instead focusing on a lifestyle long linked to better mental and physical well-being.
How many of these purported brain boosters have you tried — Ginkgo biloba, coenzyme Q10, huperzine A, caprylic acid and coconut oil, coral calcium, among others? The Alzheimer’s Association says that, with the possible exception of omega-3 fatty acids, every one of these remedies tested thus far has been found wanting.
“No known dietary supplement prevents cognitive decline or dementia,” Dr. Joanna Hellmuth stated emphatically in JAMA in January. “Yet,” she added, “supplements advertised as such are widely available and appear to gain legitimacy when sold by major U.S. retailers.”
Hellmuth, a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco’s Memory and Aging Center, reminded consumers that supplement manufacturers do not have to test their products for effectiveness or safety. Lacking sound scientific backing, most are promoted by testimonials that appeal to people worried about developing dementia.
“It’s a confusing landscape. Lots of patients and families see bold claims in newspaper ads, on the internet and on late-night TV that various supplements can improve memory,” Hellmuth said.
Such statements are legal as long as the product is not claimed to prevent, treat or cure dementia or Alzheimer’s. But too often, people seeking an easy route to cognitive health assume incorrectly that anything said to support memory would ward off dementia.
Other claims abound
Of course, supplements are only one of several arms of the memory-enhancing industry. There are also myriad videos, games, puzzles, programs and what-have-you being marketed. This isn’t a problem if people have fun doing them and don’t substitute them for measures far more likely to reduce the risk or delay the onset of dementia.
Some of these products might even be helpful up to a point. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix reported in JAMA Neurology two years ago that older people who engage in mentally stimulating activities such as games, crafts and computer use have a lower risk of developing mild cognitive impairment, often a precursor to dementia.
The researchers, led by Dr. Yonas Geda, a psychiatrist and behavioral neurologist at Mayo, followed nearly 2,000 cognitively normal people 70 or older for an average of four years. After adjusting the results for sex, age and education level, they found that computer use decreased the participants’ risk of cognitive impairment by 30 percent, engaging in crafts decreased it by 28 percent, and playing games decreased it by 22 percent.
Geda said that those who performed such activities at least once or twice a week experienced less cognitive decline than those who did the same activities at most only three times a month. For the most part, however, playing brain-training games can make you better at the games themselves, but the benefits don’t necessarily translate into improved performance in other activities.
What really works to support brain health as you age? Start with the same foods that can help to keep your heart healthy: a Mediterranean-style diet replete with fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, fish, low-fat dairy and olive oil. In a major study called MIND, seniors who adopted such a diet and limited their salt intake had a 35 percent lower risk for cognitive decline as they aged, and strict adherence to the diet cut the risk by more than 50 percent.
At the same time, avoid or strictly limit foods that can have toxic effects on the brain, such as red and especially processed meats, cheese and butter, fried foods, pastries, sugars and refined carbohydrates such as white rice and white bread, none of which is good for the heart, either.
Finally, don’t skimp on sleep, which gives the brain a chance to form new memories. Researchers suggest striving for seven to eight hours a night.