At a certain point in life, most adults start to worry about staying sharp mentally. Age is the biggest risk factor for dementia, the decline in brain function that leads to memory loss. As the number of older adults in the U.S. continues to grow, more and more people are becoming interested in ways to prevent the memory loss and cognitive decline that is dementia.
People concerned about developing dementia do puzzles, while others take dietary supplements. But according to a University of Michigan poll, what they don't do is talk to their doctors to learn about the latest research on what they should do to stave off dementia and keep their minds sharp. They also tend to pay too little attention to the most effective strategy of all — living a healthy lifestyle. Eating nutritious foods and being physically active lay the groundwork for brain health.
“While many middle-aged Americans expressed concern about memory loss, and say they take steps to prevent it, most have not sought advice from medical professionals, who could help them understand which steps are actually supported by scientific evidence,” Donovan Maust, a Michigan faculty member who contributed to the poll, told TheDoctor. People often have a limited amount of time with their doctor, so concerns about memory loss and dementia may not be priorities. Or they may simply forget to ask.
Especially surprising was the disconnect between the number of people who reported taking supplements or doing mind puzzles, and the number of people who said they did not discuss preventing dementia with their doctor.
Only five percent of all respondents and 10 percent of those who reported a family history of dementia indicated that they had discussed preventing the condition with their healthcare provider. However, 73 percent of all respondents reported they did puzzles or other brain games to maintain their brain power, or took supplements such as omega-3s or fish oil.
The findings surprised the researchers. “I was especially surprised by the disconnect between the number of people who reported taking supplements or doing mind puzzles, and the number of people who said they did not discuss preventing dementia with their doctor,” Maust said.
He added that the number of people who overestimate their risk of dementia was also important. “About 40 percent of all respondents said they were worried about developing dementia. But research shows less than 20 percent of those over 65 will develop dementia.”
What is really important for maintaining brain health and decreasing dementia risk, Maust emphasizes, is getting exercise, maintaining a healthy weight and reducing cardiovascular risk factors by quitting smoking, managing diabetes, and controlling blood pressure (BP) and cholesterol levels.
Progress is being made. Maust and another faculty member who contributed to the poll, Ken Langa, found stable or declining incidence of dementia in a 2017 study. Not only are people becoming better educated about their health overall, explains Maust, they are getting their blood pressure under control, lowering their cholesterol and quitting smoking. But memory care needs to be part of an ongoing conversation with one's doctor.
People should talk to their doctor if they are taking dietary supplements to find out if they can be doing anything more to control their BP, cholesterol and diabetes. “Being aggressive about managing chronic conditions is important.”