MIND
November 22, 2019

Preventing Dementia

People over 60 worry a lot about losing their minds. There is more they can do than solve puzzles and play video games.

People in their 50s and 60s are increasingly worried about dementia. Yet few seem to understand that paying attention to their physical health can lower their risk.

There's no magic bullet that will stave off dementia, but there are ways you can make it less likely. Evidence continues to accumulate that just taking care of your general health will lower your dementia risk. Donovan Maust, a geriatric psychiatrist who specializes in dementia care, offers some simple steps that people can take — increasing physical activity and controlling medical conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

People's two main prevention strategies relied on taking supplements or working at crossword puzzles and brain games.

Maust is lead author of a study exploring the attitudes of people in their 50s and 60s toward dementia and the strategies that they pursue to avoid it. The study started by asking people how likely they thought they were to develop dementia during their lifetime, and that's where it began uncovering misconceptions.

About half of those surveyed in the National Poll on Healthy Aging, carried out by the University of Michigan's Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation, expected to develop dementia at some point in their life. But even in people over 85, the risk of dementia is lower than that, less than one in three.

Dementia risk does begin to rise around age 65, and is higher for African-Americans and people of Latinx heritage, a heightened risk of which people in the survey were unaware. In fact, African-Americans in the study felt they were considerably less likely to develop dementia than other groups.

People's two main prevention strategies relied on taking supplements or working at crossword puzzles and brain games. Fully 32 percent said they took fish oil or omega-3 fatty acid supplements for brain health, while 39 percent took some other supplement. More than half turned to crossword puzzles or brain games in an effort to keep their mind sharp. Yet few thought of their physical health as a key to keeping mentally nimble.

There's certainly nothing wrong with doing crossword puzzles if you like them, but at the moment there isn't a great deal of evidence that they help ward off dementia. The same holds true for brain games and supplements.

Perhaps the most important finding of the study is that people who consider themselves to be in poor physical health don't think that they're any likelier to develop dementia than people who report being in good health. Unfortunately, many are.

Some of these misconceptions may come about because many who are worried about dementia are not talking with their doctors about it. The survey found that only about five percent of respondents had talked to their doctor about how to reduce their risk of dementia. Yes, there's only so much you can go over in today's typical 20-minute doctor visit, but that's one person out of every 20! And this isn't the first study to find that.

Taking care of your physical health is the most evidence-based strategy for preserving brain function into old age, Maust, an assistant professor of Psychiatry at the University of Michigan, adds. This includes obvious steps such as keeping your heart healthy but also includes often-ignored aspects, such as dealing with impaired vision and hearing, and problems with mobility.

A research letter on the study appears in JAMA Neurology.

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