According to data from the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), an estimated 6% of people worldwide suffer from mild cognitive impairment (MCI) in their 60s, and 37% are affected by age 85. Although patients with mild cognitive impairment have an increased risk of developing dementia, the condition does not always worsen and growing research aims to determine the underlying mechanisms linking the two. The progression from MCI, a slight but noticeable change in cognitive function, to dementia is not automatic; about 15% of MCI cases develop into dementia.
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.”
A new study published in the American Heart Association’s journal Stroke suggests that artificial sweeteners, found in diet sodas, have considerable health risks for both the body and the brain.
The data was collected from the Framingham Heart Study, a project of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and Boston University, and involved data on 2,888 adults older than 45 and 1,484 adults older than 60 from Framingham, Massachusetts. In the group aged 45-and-older, researchers measured for increased risk of stroke; in the group aged 60-and-older, researchers measured for dementia.
The statistics analyzed how many sugary beverages and artificially sweetened soft drinks each person in the two different age groups drank, between the years 1991 and 2001. That data was than compared against the number of people who suffered from stroke or dementia in the next decade.
Researchers found that—juxtaposed against people who never drank artificially sweetened soft drinks—those who drank one per day were almost three times as likely to have an ischemic stroke. Those who drank one per day were also almost three times as likely to be diagnosed with dementia.
Previous studies have shown a strong association between the intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and a host of adverse health effects, including type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. Professor and chair of neurology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine Dr. Ralph Sacco confirms that this article “provides further evidence on artificially sweetened beverages and their possibly effects on vascular health…we believe the pathways of which artificially sweetened beverages would affect the brain are probably through vascular mechanisms.”
Moreover, artificial sweeteners have been shown to cause glucose intolerance in mice by altering gut microbiota, and have been associated with dysbiosis and glucose intolerance in humans. The cumulative research strongly indicates that there is no benefit to using artificial sweeteners, or drinking diet soda, compared to regular sucrose or sugary drinks.
To learn more about the gut-immune-brain connection, and the different ways in which various types of inflammation can affect the body and brain, register for Module VII: Autoimmune Disease & Inflammation, from August 10-12.