NIH says science is lacking for Alzheimer’s prevention

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A new report fro the National Institutes of Health suggests that, currently, there is not enough rigorous scientific evidence to suggest any surefire ways of preventing Alzheimer’s disease. While small studies have suggested that everything from crossword puzzles to routine exercise can help stave off cognitive decline, the national panel said that there have not been enough large-scale, long-term studies to confirm these findings. (In spite of a booming market for games meant to combat cognitive decline, a recent study suggests that brain exercises only improve people’s skills at those particular exercises, not their mental acuity in general.) As Dr. Martha Daviglus, chair of the NIH panel and a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University told UPI:

“Alzheimer’s disease is a feared and heart-breaking disease… We wish we could tell people that taking a pill or doing a puzzle every day would prevent this terrible disease, but current evidence doesn’t support this.”

While researchers have found correlations between having an active social life, more fulfilling sense of purpose and being more physically active and a decreased risk for cognitive decline with age, for example, Daviglus tells UPI that such investigations are generally:

“… examples of the classic chicken or the egg quandary. Are people able to stay mentally sharp over time because they are physically active and socially engaged or are they simply more likely to stay physically active and socially engaged because they are mentally sharp?”

The NIH “state of the science” report (PDF) on preventing cognitive decline is meant to be conservative—drawing conclusions from only the most thorough, large-scale research. And ultimately they conclude, the emphatic proof necessary to draw conclusions about Alzheimer’s prevention just isn’t there yet. That said, panel members do say that ongoing research may shed further light on the potential benefits of “antihypertensive medications, omega-3 fatty acid, physical activity, and cognitive engagement,” in addition to other prevention strategies. So, in the meantime, while we await more rigorous research, it doesn’t hurt to hedge your bets by staying active, eating well and finding ways to keep yourself socially and mentally engaged. NPR provides a good round-up of some prevention efforts that the panel says at least initial research supports:

Cardiovascular Health: Keeping your heart healthy could help. The reviewers looked at a number of medical factors and found that cardiovascular health problems were consistently linked with a decline in brain function. In particular, high blood pressure was more consistently problematic.

Diet: Of all the foods and supplements studied, long-term studies suggested omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish, are associated with reduced risk of cognitive decline. Other vitamins and supplements such as vitamins B, E and C, and folates haven’t been shown to have any effect on cognitive fitness. Limited evidence suggests that the Mediterranean diet can help.

Smoking: Don’t do it. Smoking is a risk factor for many health conditions, and it appears that Alzheimer’s is no different. Current smoking is likely a risk factor, but it’s unclear if past smoking could continue to affect brain function.

Physical Activity: By all means, do it! Staying active in a variety of ways — doing things like gardening, painting, going to church and staying involved in a community — may help keep the brain healthy, some studies suggest.

The good news is, while we wait to learn more about what ways we can best hope to thwart Alzheimer’s, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest other health benefits of not smoking, eating well and getting regular exercise.

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