The bad news about dementia you already know. It’s currently killing 6 million Americans, which is about six times the total number who have died from Covid-19. And the figures are rising, not falling. About one in three of us will get it. Scientists don’t fully understand what causes dementia. There is no treatment and no cure. And the survival rate is 0%.
Not all the news is bad. A steady stream of research studies, published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, are making all sorts of small, incremental breakthroughs. They aren’t close to finding a pharmaceutical cure, but they are finding more things we can do that are likely to reduce our own risks of getting this terrible disease.
None of them are guaranteed, but they are easy and involve no health risk.
Examples? A new study from the McMaster University in Canada suggests that putting away the smartphone and the GPS, and trying to navigate the old-way—using maps, directions and memory—may be helpful. It’s hard and a pain, but that’s the point. We’re giving our brains—and especially the hippocampus — a workout.
Researchers Emma Waddington and Jennifer Heisz studied 158 healthy adults aged 18 to 87, most of whom were experienced at the sport of “orienteering”—navigating and racing across an unknown terrain with only a map and a compass. The finding: Those who were most experienced and proficient at orienteering seemed better at spatial memory and processing, even after controlling for age and other factors.
The study has limitations. But the results are hardly shocking, and seem to confirm similar findings in some other studies. As Waddington and Heisz point out, orienteering is the closest proxy in our modern world to the way our hunter-gatherer ancestors operated for most of human history.
Another new study, conducted at the University of Otago in New Zealand and published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Physiology, found that very short bursts of high-intensity exercise—lasting just six minutes at a time — may protect us from developing dementia. So called high-intensity interval training was already getting the thumbs-up from medical researchers and health experts. It’s supposed to be good for our cardiovascular system, good for weight loss, and (naturally) easier to budget into your day than a long workout. The latest study says it also stimulates the production of the protein BDNF, which in turn promotes brain health. BDNF helps the brain form new neural pathways, helps neurons survive, and may help learning and memory.
Then there are the recent studies showing that some simple changes to our diet could have a big effect.
For example, researchers at Tufts University in Boston found that drinking more green tea, and eating more grapes, blueberries, cranberries, peanuts, pistachios and cocoa, may help. These all contain natural ingredients that in the laboratory show signs of fighting Alzheimer’s with no side effects. The same is also true for red wine. The green tea contains a natural compound called catechins. The others contain one called resveratrol. Both reduced the formation of so-called “amyloid plaques” in neurons in the lab. Those plaques develop in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s.
Researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, meanwhile, found that people who ate a lot of kale, beans, spinach, broccoli, tomatoes, apples, and oranges, and drank a lot of tea (or wine), seemed to have significantly slower rates of cognitive decline as they aged. The researchers traced this to the presence of certain natural antioxidants in the foods. The study was published late last year in the peer-reviewed medical journal Neurology.
Meanwhile recent studies also suggest that staying socially active and avoiding isolation, especially as we age, lower our risk of cognitive decline and dementia.
Researchers at Binghamton University in New York recently published the results of a study conducted in rural China, following changes in retirement arrangements there. The researchers found that when people took advantage of policy changes to retire early, and then became more isolated, they were more likely to experience cognitive decline.
“Participants in the program report substantially lower levels of social engagement, with significantly lower rates of volunteering and social interaction,” reported Binghamton economics professor Plamen Nikolov. “We find that increased social isolation is strongly linked with faster cognitive decline among the elderly.” This was true, they found, even though the early retirement program had been good for participants’ physical health.
Last year, researchers at University College London and Brighton and Sussex Medical School in England found something similar. They published in the peer-reviewed journal Neurology the results of a long-running study of nearly 1,200 people born in Britain in 1946. The study had included tests, including cognitive tests and questionnaires, from ages 8 to 69.
Net result: Activities, especially mental activities, matter. People who read a lot or who engaged in lifetime learning got better cognitive scores later on. So did people who stayed in school at least through college. But so, too, did people who took part in “clubs, religious groups, sports or artistic activities,” the researchers said.
Meanwhile another study, conducted by researchers at Fudan University in China and the Universities of Cambridge and Warwick in England, found that older people who were socially isolated were about 50% more likely to develop dementia even during a relatively limited 12-year span.
And then there was this extensive study—also the work of researchers at Cambridge and Fudan—which looked at data for half a million people in Britain. The elevator summary: If you want to keep your brain healthy, aim to sleep for 7 hours a night. Not much less, but not much more either.
There are inevitable limitations on all these studies. They are observational. They are based on asking people questions about their lifestyle in the real world, and people aren’t always reliable. There are tons of other factors involved. There is no perfect way around any of these things.
However, in many cases different studies are finding the same things. And it’s a simple question of risk and reward: The challenge sometimes known as Pascal’s Bet. If you drink green tea, eat some spinach, get a reasonable night’s sleep, and stay socially active into your old age, what’s the worst that could happen?