The Times this weekend ran the headline ‘Research now shows that brain supplements don’t prevent dementia’. Omega 3 fish oil, B vitamins (or any other vitamins), selenium (or any other minerals), ginkgo biloba, green tea, curcumin – none of them currently have any proven clinical benefit in either preventing dementia or reducing its symptoms according to the scientific arbiter Cochrane, endorsed by the Alzheimer’s Society.
Dementia is an umbrella term for several diseases affecting memory, other cognitive abilities and behaviour that interfere significantly with a person’s ability to maintain their activities of daily living. According to The Lancet Commission on dementia, it is the greatest global challenge for health and social care in the 21st century: around 50 million people worldwide have dementia and this number is predicted to triple by 2050.
The global supplements market in this area is predicted to earn £4.4 billion a year by 2023 – it seems that many of us are after that ‘magic pill’ no effort quick fix. Current research however deems it worthless. The answer instead is lifestyle change according to Dr David Reynolds, chief scientific officer at Alzheimer’s Research UK. His view is that “one third of dementias could be avoided by people changing their lifestyles”.
In 2013 the G8 issued a dementia summit declaration in which it said dementia is not a normal part of ageing. It is a condition that impairs the cognitive brain functions of memory, language, perception and thought and which interferes significantly with the ability to maintain the activities of daily living. Lifestyle change seems to be the key influencer. Our energy-hungry brains need a healthy heart and circulation to provide them with oxygen and nutrients. They also need to be protected against cell damage from inflammation or pollutants. The following recommendations will come as no surprise to most of us:
- Taking regular physical exercise;
- Maintaining your blood pressure within healthy limits;
- Challenging your brain;
- Stopping smoking;
- Keeping your weight down;
- A balanced healthy diet;
- Drinking alcohol only in moderation;
- Cutting down on salt.
Interestingly, at the core of all this lies regular, healthy exercise. “What’s good for your heart is good for your head” says Reynolds and cardiovascular health is crucial to both. I’ve written about the benefits of exercise for the brain before. It appears that exercise has both a direct effect, slowing the shrinkage of the brain (and even promoting neurogenesis) as well as an indirect effect by improving mood and sleep and reducing stress and anxiety. Problems in these areas frequently cause or contribute to cognitive impairment. Other studies have shown that exercise improves what scientists call "executive function," This includes basic functions like working memory, planning and multi tasking as well as processing speed.
It’s common sense that leading a healthy lifestyle gives us the best chance of staying healthy in body and mind. It is comforting to know that the disarmingly simple and enjoyable exercise of Nordic walking is exceedingly beneficial for our health.