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Little evidence that anything works to prevent cognitive decline

April 28, 2010 | 12:53 pm

Alzheimers Older Americans spend a bundle in search of programs, devices and products that may help them stave off cognitive decline, including Alzheimer's disease. But an independent panel of experts on cognitive decline cautioned Wednesday that there is little substantive proof that any of the popular strategies --including nutritional supplements, diet, cognitive games, computer programs and exercise -- work.

Some of these strategies may eventually prove to be helpful, the panelists stated, and research is ongoing on several prevention approaches. But none is currently backed by rigorous scientific evidence of effectiveness.

The panel's findings, while disheartening, are aimed at being straightforward with Americans, who may spend large amounts of money on cognitive enhancement or may even be persuaded to use products or practices that could be harmful.

"I think the public should have the information we have," said Dr. Evelyn C. Granieri, chief of the division of geriatric medicine and aging at Columbia University, who served on the panel. "The state of the science is: We don't have instruments or information that allows us to prevent the development of this."

"We're not trying to take anyone's hope away or make people feel helpless," said Dr. Carl C. Bell, a professor in the department of psychiatry and the school of public health at the University of Illinois, Chicago, who served on the panel. "We have to go with the hard science. That is not to take away from people's personal choices or what they wish to pursue."

Consumers should discuss prevention strategies with their doctors in order to protect against taking any substances that might be harmful to their health, the panelists urged.

The remarks were made Wednesday at the conclusion of a "state of the science" conference, convened by the National Institutes of Health, entitled "Preventing Alzheimer's Disease and Cognitive Decline." The committee was charged with assessing the available evidence on preventing cognitive decline and preparing a report on its findings.

Some preliminary research suggests that a few prevention strategies could emerge as helpful, according to the report. These include programs that train people in memory, reasoning and speed of thinking as well as omega-3 fatty acid supplementation, physical activity and a diet low in saturated fat and high in fruits and vegetables.

Look at the bright side, even if it doesn't help protect your brain, exercise and a healthy diet certainly won't hurt.

-- Shari Roan

Photo: Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish, may help prevent cognitive decline, but the link is inconclusive so far. Credit: Christine Cotter  / Los Angeles Times