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Best steps you can take to prevent Alzheimer's, from the Harvard Mental Health Letter

Several drugs aimed at clearing amyloid deposits from the brain—which investigators had hoped would reverse the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease—have failed in late-stage testing. Reports on tests of other interventions to prevent or slow Alzheimer’s have also been discouraging: statins, vitamin supplements, and ginkgo biloba have failed to provide any benefit. It now appears that remaining mentally and physically fit are the best options for preventing—or at least delaying—Alzheimer’s from developing in the first place, reports the February issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter.

For example, a study published in November 2008 provided evidence that cognitive reserve—an attribute encompassing thinking and memory abilities—may help delay Alzheimer’s symptoms. It’s not clear why, but people with more cognitive reserve may be able to compensate for any thinking deficits by using other parts of their brains. Researchers were surprised that when they compared people with the same extent of amyloid plaque, those with more education scored better on overall cognitive function than those with less education. Thus, education may create a cognitive reserve that raises the threshold for Alzheimer’s disease.

Two studies published in 2008 add to the evidence that overall cardiovascular fitness may help delay cognitive decline—possibly by keeping blood vessels healthy or by increasing blood flow to the brain. The Rush Memory and Aging Project found that the more active people were on a daily basis, the better they performed on tests of cognitive function. Likewise, the Fitness for the Aging Brain Study found that people who exercised regularly scored better on tests of cognitive function and memory than those who did not.

Dr. Michael Miller, editor in chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter, notes that achieving modest gains—particularly by remaining mentally and physically active—is the best option.

Also in this issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter

  • Brain imaging techniques for Alzheimer's disease
  • Failed efforts to thwart Alzheimer's disease raise questions
  • Cytochrome P450 enzymes and psychiatric drugs
  • When children with bipolar disorder grow up
  • In brief: Cell phone use more distracting to drivers than chatting with passengers
  • In brief: Improving outcomes for opioid-addicted youth
  • Commentary: Mental health at a reasonable cost
  • References for "Failed efforts to thwart Alzheimer's disease raise questions"
  • References for "Cytochrome P450 enzymes and psychiatric drugs"
  • References for "When children with bipolar disorder grow up"

More Harvard Health News »


About Harvard Health Publications

Harvard Health Publications publishes four monthly newsletters--Harvard Health Letter, Harvard Women's Health Watch, Harvard Men's Health Watch, and Harvard Heart Letter--as well as more than 50 special health reports and books drawing on the expertise of the 8,000 faculty physicians at Harvard Medical School and its world-famous affiliated hospitals.