Best Things You Can Do to Slow Cognitive Decline Revealed

Our brains age as we get older, with our thinking abilities peaking around the age of 30. The decline in cognitive abilities as we get older is thought to be to do with changes to our brain structures that take place over time.

It is estimated that one in nine adults in the U.S. has symptoms of cognitive decline, experiencing confusion and memory loss as they get older. Eventually, this decline can continue to the point where people can no longer care for themselves, eventually developing Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia.

But age-related cognitive decline can be slowed down.

Daily multivitamins

Multivitamin use may help slow cognitive decline in older adults, a three-year study into dementia prevention has found.

Over 2,200 participants with an average age of around 73 were given either multivitamins, cocoa extract, or a placebo over three years and asked to complete at least one annual test over the telephone that assessed their cognitive abilities, such as by asking them to recall word lists.

The U.S.-based researchers found that multivitamin use had a statistically significant benefit over the three year period compared to placebo, though cocoa extract did not. Patients given the multivitamins showed improved general cognition and memory, and these benefits were particularly pronounced in people with a history of cardiovascular disease.

Findings are published in the Alzheimer's Association Alzheimer's & Dementia journal.

The study said further work needs to be done to confirm the findings in a more diverse group of people and that the mechanisms behind the multivitamin benefits are not clear. It said there is an "urgent need" to identify ways to help adults maintain their cognitive function due to the "heavy societal burden associated with Alzheimer's disease and related dementia, which affect more than 46 million people worldwide."

Brain drawing
A stock illustration depicts someone erasing part of a pencil drawing of a brain. Studies into preventative measures for Alzheimer's and dementia are ongoing. Andreus/Getty

In a press release, Maria C. Carrillo, chief science officer of the Alzheimer's Association, said the Alzheimer's Association is not yet ready to recommend widespread use of multivitamins to help prevent cognitive decline but called the results encouraging.

"We envision a future where there are multiple treatments and risk reduction strategies available that address cognitive aging and dementia in multiple ways—like heart disease and cancer—and that can be combined into powerful combination therapies... in conjunction with brain-healthy guidelines for lifestyle factors like diet and physical activity," she said.

What is Alzheimer's disease?

Alzheimer's disease is a progressive cognitive illness that starts with mild memory loss and worsens over time. Eventually, patients lose the ability to have conversations with others or respond to their environment.

Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia, which is a general term referring to memory loss and cognitive decline that interferes with daily life. It accounts for between 60 and 80 percent of dementia cases.

Alzheimer's disease is thought to affect around six million people in America, though the number is expected to nearly triple to 14 million by 2060.

So far, nothing has been proven to prevent or delay dementia caused by Alzheimer's disease. However, researchers have identified some strategies that might work.

"Growing evidence indicates that people can reduce their risk of cognitive decline by adopting 'brain healthy' lifestyle habits," Carrillo told Newsweek. "These include: regular physical activity, formal education, not smoking, eating a brain healthy diet, managing heart health risk factors, and getting regular sleep. Combine these habits to achieve maximum benefit for the brain and body. And start now. It's never too late or too early to incorporate healthy habits."

Physical exercise

To date there is not enough evidence for scientists to recommend exercise as a way to prevent Alzheimer's disease or mild cognitive impairment, but some studies have suggested that people who exercise have a lower risk of cognitive decline than those who do not.

Exercise has also been associated with fewer signs of Alzheimer's disease on the brain and better performance in certain cognitive tests, the U.S. National Institute on Aging said.

Scientists still need to know what types of exercise might be beneficial. One study compared high-intensity exercise like running on a treadmill to low-intensity exercise like stretching, and found that participants in the high-intensity group ended up with a better ability to plan an organize—though they did not display improved short-term memory.

Experts encourage exercise generally for its many other health benefits.

Controlling high blood pressure

Studies have shown that there is a connection between high blood pressure and dementia, and it is common for people with Alzheimer's-related brain changes to also have signs of damage to the brain's blood vessels.

However, clinical trials are still underway to investigate this link more thoroughly.

Blood pressure can be managed with many different lifestyle changes, including eating a well-balanced and low salt diet, limiting alcohol, and enjoying regular physical activity.

Even if it is unclear that managing high blood pressure definitely reduces dementia risk, it has many other health benefits.

Cognitive training

There is no evidence that you can train your brain to prevent Alzheimer's disease, but studies have shown that repetitive practice in certain brain tasks results in long-term improvements in that particular skill.

In the 1996 ACTIVE trial, adults aged 65 or over took part in 10 sessions of memory, reasoning, and processing speed training over five to six weeks and could also have booster sessions after 11 months and after three years. Participants displayed improved mental skills in the specific areas they were trained in, even years after the training was completed.

Other long term studies have suggested that informal cognitive activities like reading or playing games might lower the risk of Alzheimer's-related cognitive decline.

Diet

While eating a healthy and balanced diet can confer many health benefits in general, a review of research by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) did not find enough evidence to recommend a specific diet to prevent cognitive decline.

That said, certain diets have been associated with cognitive benefits. Studies into the 'MIND diet', which is a combination of the Mediterranean diet and a diet to help stop high blood pressure, are underway.

The Mediterranean diet places a focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fish, unsaturated fats, and low amounts of red meat, eggs, and sweets.