A report published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) cites promising evidence indicating that active cognitive training, blood pressure management, and physical activity may collectively help stave off age-related cognitive decline and dementia.
In 2015, the Alzheimer’s Association released similar findings that identified two critical activities that could minimize the risk of cognitive decline: increasing physical activity, and improving cardiovascular health. Dan G. Blazer, a member of the NASEM committee that conducted the study and the J.P. Gibbons Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus at Duke University Medical Center, states: “What is good for the heart is good for the brain. Therefore, exercise and controlling high blood pressure are good for the brain.” While controlling blood pressure is good preventive practice to combat heart disease, it may also reduce memory less and dementia—likely because high blood pressure damages delicate blood vessels in the brain.
In terms of diet, a study released by Temple University found that extra-virgin olive helped fend off Alzheimer’s in mice. The mice fed a diet rich in extra-virgin olive oil showed better learning and memory skills than those who did not receive the diet. While the evidence surrounding diet is not as conclusive and plentiful as the research regarding exercise, the panel singled out diets that emphasized whole grains, fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, and lower levels of salts.
Cognitive training has been receiving more attention recently, referring to tools and tactics engineered to improve reasoning, problem-solving, memory retention, and processing speed. In a randomized control trial reviewed by the committee titled “Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly,” participants who received cognitive training in processing speed and reasoning deduction demonstrated less decline than those who did not, over a time span of ten years.
More than 5 million Americans have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, and the number is only expected to increase as the population ages. Statistics show that by 2050, numbers could reach up to 16 million. There is no cure, and few effective treatments. Yet the evidence suggests that these lifestyle changes may actively reduce risk, or at least delay the onset of dementia. Dr. Richard Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging, advised people to “Try and avoid the tendency to sit down, watch television for endless hours at night. Get out there, do something.”