Updated: Jul 3
State of the science
The science of dementia prevention has come a long way over the past two decades. There is now a robust body of literature to support specific lifestyle practices that have been validated through repeated studies. The problem is not so much that there is not enough research, but rather that there may be too much.
We want to know, “What’s right for me?”
It turns out that the nature of lifestyle medicine research is such that it is difficult to hone in on individual risks in order to demonstrate definitive outcomes. For example, let’s say that I’m designing a study to look at exercise, and my hypothesis is that running for 30 mins 5 days a week will prevent dementia, I may be able to design my study to match my intervention and control arms such that their ages and risk factors are similar, but it would be challenging to also factor in their nutrition, sleep, socialization and other lifestyle factors.
Furthermore, dementia outcomes must be measured over months and years in order to demonstrate impact. Despite these gnarly logistical issues, some of the best preventive medicine minds of our time from over forty countries have dedicated their time to energy to study these questions in the ww-FINGERS study.
International cohorts of elder adults have specifically been recruited for inclusion in clinical trials that involve physical exercise, active nutrition, cognitive training and social activity, as well as monitoring of heart and other health parameters. Answers from these trials will be forthcoming in due course.
What’s right for me?
But history has shown us that the more we learn through research, the more questions seem to arise. Specifically, as individuals, we want to know, “What’s right for me?”
I used to feel overwhelmed by all the potential risks that threaten the health of our brains. Author Dr Dale Bredeson famously notes in his book “The End of Alzheimer’s Program,” that addressing Alzheimer’s risk is like trying to plug 36 holes in the roof of your house. So how do we know which risks to pay attention to?
The answer is that you get to decide for yourself. In fact, not only do you get to decide, but you have to decide. Because no one else is going to move that body for you, put yourself to bed, nor decide what to put in your mouth. Yes, it really is that simple. AND it can feel like an overwhelming amount of responsibility to have to research and figure it all out.
You get to decide for yourself
The good news is that if you are reading this article, you are probably someone who cares about your own brain health or that of someone you love. So you are already aware that brain health is actually the most important aspect of our health, because without our minds, we are no longer ourselves. As you may have seen in people living with dementia, it’s like they are losing a part of their very identities as they lose their independence, their stories, and their ability to recognize others.
Brain Health Index
Awareness is the first critical piece, and the second is that you don’t have to do this all on your own. There are a growing number of free resources available to help you, from books to websites to podcasts, as well as support groups for caregivers. Professional help is also available through Memory Care Units and academic medical centers engaged in brain health research.
You don’t have to do this all on your own
Experts in dementia prevention emphasize a precision approach when it comes to addressing individual risk. That’s because we all have different challenges and preferences when it comes to taking care of ourselves, not to mention our varied genetic profiles and environmental exposures.
If you are interested in figuring out what you can do for yourself, I would encourage you to take the Brain Health Index Quiz - it only takes 7 mins to complete the quiz online.