Put down the fish oil supplements and pick up a crossword puzzle if you want to ward off age-related cognitive decline, a new Canadian study says.
Researchers at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital say that some of the treatments currently prescribed to older patients are doing little, if anything, to prevent cognitive impairment, which is marked by memory loss and reduced judgment and decision-making skills.
In a review of 32 studies involving some 25,000 patients, the researchers found no strong evidence that anti-dementia medications work. These include cholinesterase inhibitors, which were developed to help improve the effectiveness of a chemical in the brain that plays a role in memory, thought and judgment.
The researchers also found little evidence to support the effectiveness of herbal supplements that are often prescribed to improve cognitive function, such as gingko, or B6 or omega-3 fatty acids.
The study also found that the hormone estrogen, thought to ward off memory loss, may in fact increase the risk of cognitive decline and the onset of dementia in women.
Study author Dr. Raza Naqvi said patients who are on medication for the purpose of preserving memory should discuss the findings with their doctor. “There is a chance that you may be doing more harm than good,” Naqvi told CTV News.
Finding the best ways to prevent cognitive decline will become more important in the years ahead as the segment of the population suffering from some form of dementia continues to rise.
Mild cognitive impairment affects between 10 and 25 per cent of people over age 70, and the annual rate of decline into dementia is about 10 per cent. It is estimated that the number of Canadians with dementia will double over the next 25 years to more than one million.
So how do you ward off memory loss? The review found mental exercises — such as computerized training programs or intensive one-on-one personal cognitive training for memory and reasoning – to be the most effective.
“It shows if you don’t use it you lose it, and the study shows mental exercise is very, very important,” said Dr. Camilla Wong of St. Michael’s Hospital.
The concern, however, is that the type of computer programs that offer proven benefits are labour- and resource-intensive, Naqvi said in a statement, and therefore not the kind available to the average person.
The researchers say that further studies should look at whether the mental exercise offered by sudoko and crossword puzzles provide similar benefits to that of the computer programs.
Studies have also suggested that physical activity can help prevent cognitive decline. However, the researchers also found the evidence supporting the importance of exercise to be “weak.”
Despite this, scientists at the University of British Columbia cite other studies which show that lifting weights and walking can keep the brain from shrinking with age.
Teresa Liu-Ambrose of the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute told CTV that “if you invest in one year of exercise, you can reverse your brain age by two years.”
With a report from CTV’s medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip