Three ways to prevent cognitive decline, study reports

A new panel established by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) has found evidence suggesting there are three things people can do to slow mental decline and lower their chances of developing dementia.

While the results come only from a single study, researchers found that brain engagement, high blood pressure control, and regular exercise can all help preserve long-term brain health.

The team cited a trial that took place last summer, which suggested that a brain training program reduced both the risk of cognitive decline and dementia by nearly half. They also cited previous findings that linked dementia to conditions like hypertension and diabetes and also explained research linking high levels of physical fitness with better physical, cognitive, and mental health.

This showed ample evidence to help prevent cognitive decline. However, the panel could not reach a definitive conclusion because slowing age-related decline, delaying mild cognitive impairment, and preventing Alzheimer’s disease are related challenges, and none of the beneficial strategies outlined in the evidence has helped in those cases.

Nevertheless, scientists believe that improvements in one area — such as regular exercise — could lead to better cognitive health. Many controlled studies back up those findings. Past trials have outlined the link between regular physical activity and cognitive health, and some have found that dementia rates are connected to a population’s blood pressure, The Los Angeles Times reports.

The team expanded on those results by looking at a 10-year study that divided 2,802 cognitively healthy seniors into four groups. Two groups attend classroom sessions aimed at improving reasoning or memory skills, while the third received a brain-training program designed to improve the visual processing speed that declines with age. The fourth acted as a control.

After the study, subjects who attended the most brain-training sessions had their risk of cognitive decline or dementia reduced by half over the next 10 years. 

“The ideas were there before the report,” said Dan G. Blazer, a member of the NASEM committee and the Duke University Medical Center, in a report by USA Today. “What is good for the heart is good for the brain. Therefore, exercise and controlling high blood pressure are good for the brain.”

However, as the team did not take social engagement into effect, their research did not compile enough evidence to show a definitive link between brain games and brain health.

Even so, scientists know that the precursors for mental decline begin years, and possibly decades before any symptoms show up. For instance, studies have shown that people who manage hypertension in their mid-30s see benefits well into old age. This reveals that in order to prevent such problems, people need to start taking care of themselves early on. It also shows that more research needs to be conducted on cognitive diseases in younger subjects.

“More research is needed to determine what the optimal interventions should be,” said chief medical officer Maria Carrillo, according to The Washington Post. “In the meantime, we recommend that people challenge their brains to maintain brain health.”

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