July 25, 2017

Healthy Lifestyle Habits and the Prevention of Dementia, Scientists Weigh the Evidence

Scientific Evidence Supporting Exercise, Diet and Mind Challenges to Help Prevent Dementia

The “gold standard” for scientists to deem a disease treatment effective typically relies on evidence from a double-blind, placebo controlled trial. This type of study compares a treatment to a placebo or “dummy” treatment and both the researchers and subjects don’t know which is which. For FDA approval, several successful double-blind, placebo controlled trials are required. This process takes a long time, is expensive, and yet necessary to prove that a new drug treatment is safe and effective for use in people.

Applying this approach to lifestyle interventions like diet and exercise, can be difficult if not, implausible. Imagine a diet study using a placebo. So, as a result, evidence supporting lifestyle modification comes from other types of research methods. Scientists may examine trends in data from large groups of people studied over long periods of time and other methods of data collection that rely on subject self-reporting, like in food or exercise journals.

A recent study report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, a non-government, well-respected scientific organization, concluded although there is some promising evidence, there isn’t enough conclusive data to support government promotion of blood pressure management, exercise and brain challenges, like solving puzzles and learning a foreign language, in the prevention of brain decline and dementia.

Dr. Jeffrey Cummings, world-renowned brain health scientist,  Director of Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health and the Camille and Larry Ruvo Chair for Brain Health, disagrees. ”The evidence is in fact strong enough to promote lifestyle interventions such as diet, physical exercise, mental fitness and control of blood pressure in the prevention of cognitive decline.” He believes “ the academy is withholding a recommendation for a government-sponsored national campaign due to the lack of double-blinded, placebo controlled trials. These types of studies are virtually impossible to do in lifestyle interventions.”

Dr. Cummings feels promoting healthy lifestyle habits such as exercise, diet, mental fitness, social interaction, sleep and controlling health risks like high blood pressure and diabetes is warranted.“There is enough encouraging data to get people more involved with their general health to help protect their brain health.”

In fact, the Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention, Intervention, and Care recommends health providers be “ambitious about prevention”. During the recent Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in London, this group of scientists presented and published their evidence-based report stating that nearly one-third of all dementia could be prevented or delayed through better lifestyle choices (controlling high blood pressure, exercise, weight management, reducing smoking, staying social, etc). They even added supportive evidence for more early childhood education and management of midlife hearing loss. “Our results show it is never too early or never too late to make lifestyle changes that will make a difference.”

Re-examine your lifestyle choices and get tips to improve your brain health by re-checking your Brain Health Index at healthybrains.org.