The Truth About Preventing Memory Loss

Doing puzzles and taking supplements aren’t going to cut it. The good news? Warding off dementia is probably easier than you think.

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Nearly all Americans in their 50s and early 60s are worried about dementia—so much so that they even take active steps to reduce their risk. In fact, 73% said they take supplements or regularly do puzzles and other brain games to keep their minds sharp, according to results from the new National Poll on Healthy Aging, developed by researchers at the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation. Unfortunately, all that effort may be focused on the wrong things.

That’s because none of those strategies have been proven to work, according to new guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO). Supplements containing nutrients like vitamin B, vitamin E, and fish oil are often sold with the promise of promoting your brain health, so it makes sense that so many adults take them for that purpose. But the WHO guidelines say these supplements shouldn’t be your go-to strategy to lower your chances of memory loss.

"There is currently no evidence to show that taking these supplements actually reduces the risk of cognitive decline and dementia, and in fact, we know that in high doses these can be harmful," Neerja Chowdhary, M.D., a psychiatrist and technical officer at WHO, told the Associated Press. And while crosswords and other brain games can be fun activities, there’s little research to suggest they make much of a difference either.

How to Reduce Your Risk of Memory Loss—the Right Way

The first step is to speak to your doctor—only 5% of the 1,028 survey participants had this conversation, according to the poll. Then, focus on these three strategies from the Alzheimer’s Association, which also align with findings in the WHO report.

  • Keep your cardiovascular system healthy. Help protect your brain by stopping smoking, keeping your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar within recommended limits, and staying at a healthy weight. Anything that protects your blood vessels will help protect your cognitive function.
  • Exercise regularly. Staying physically active may help reduce your risk of some types of dementia by increasing the blood and oxygen flow to your brain. Try to get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week (think brisk walking, gardening, or playing doubles tennis), according to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Eat well. A heart-healthy diet will also benefit your brain. For example, the Mediterranean diet is great for your health, focusing on whole grains, fruits and veggies, fish, nuts, and olive oil, while avoiding to much red meat.

"For anyone who wants to stay as sharp as possible as they age, the evidence is clear: Focus on your diet, your exercise, your sleep, and your blood pressure," said Preeti Malani, M.D., the professor of geriatric and internal medicine at the University of Michigan who directed the National Poll on Healthy Aging. "Don't focus on worrying about what might happen, or the products you can buy that promise to help, but rather focus on what you can do now that research has proven to help."

See more helpful articles:

10 Things Not to Say as a Caregiver for a Person Living with Dementia

Which Is Easier on Your Brain, Forgetting or Remembering?

Want to Decrease Your Risk of Alzheimer's? Here’s What You Need to Know