Harvard Health Letter

On the brain: Maybe more than one way to beat cognitive decline

As we get older, most of us will have some problems with short-term memory and processing new information. That kind of cognitive decline is the aging brain's equivalent of creaky knees. It reminds us that we're not as young as we used to be, but we manage.

Dementia, though, is a different story. If someone has dementia, it means that multiple areas of thinking are affected and that the deficits are likely to get worse. And, by definition, dementia means the deterioration in memory and other areas of thought is bad enough that the tasks and decisions of everyday life become difficult, if not impossible. Dementia has several causes, but in this country, Alzheimer's disease is the main one, and it's responsible for between 60% and 80% of dementia cases.

Needless to say, avoiding dementia and Alzheimer's disease is something we'd all like to do. But when the National Institutes of Health convened a state-of-the-science conference in 2010 on preventing Alzheimer's disease and cognitive decline, the resulting consensus statement wasn't, to put it mildly, very encouraging. The statement said there is no evidence of "even moderate scientific quality" that the risk of getting Alzheimer's disease is altered by nutritional supplements, herbal preparations, diet, social and economic factors — or just about anything else. Interventions aimed at delaying the onset of Alzheimer's didn't fare much better.

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