I’m not a medical doctor of any kind. But reviewing journals, I’ve noticed sharply differing expert opinions on the usefulness of many medicines and vitamin supplements for people trying to prevent dementia.

What I cannot find are any articles that dismiss the critical importance of mind and body exercises when seeking to prevent or slow dementia. It seems possible that exercise is the cleanest, greenest, best, and most universally accepted preventative medicine for many people hoping to sharpen their memory and prevent memory loss.

Many Sources of Dementia

Consult a medical doctor if you have manifested memory loss. While Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia by far, the Alzheimer’s association provides a laundry list of other unlikable diseases that can cause memory loss. And aside from diseases that attack the brain or memory primarily, causes of memory problems can range from physical injuries to medical threats like Lyme disease and very high blood pressure that may usually have other manifested symptoms. Kris Kristofferson, the country music singer, may be the most famous case of someone who was “miraculously cured” of dementia when his Lyme disease was successfully diagnosed and eradicated. Some people could unfortunately be suffering from memory loss due to the side effects of drugs to prevent or slow diseases (even brain diseases like Parkinson’s), and also due to the side effects of medicines like painkillers. Sometimes, doctors don’t find the source of the problem.

It is natural for people to try to find casual solutions, including vitamins, in an individual search for prevention of memory problems, sometimes before any memory loss is even manifested. Should they?

Articles less dismissive of vitamins as an ounce of prevention

A study in the UK of over 160 patients focused on preventing “mild cognitive impairment” (MCI) in elderly people. The study suggested a link between higher intake of vitamin B and lower cognitive impairment. An article posted by the Harvard Journal of Public Health provides a correlating theme, that diets depleted of Vitamin B, or people unable to process it, can suffer symptoms of dementia. This is thankfully reversible with later vitamin intake and absorption.

Of course, Vitamin B could come from natural foods, not vitamin supplements, and it may be more successfully processed in food. High concentrations are in animal products (such as fish, poultry, meat, eggs, or dairy — mostly not emphasized on this web site). People who are not vegetarian can consider eating from animals that have been well-treated in life.

For people seeking to avoid meat products, B12 is also found in fortified breakfast cereals and enriched soy or rice milk. Strict vegetarians (and people taking medicines, such as those against acid reflux) can make sure their vitamin B12 is adequately absorbed with a methylmalonic acid test or another test recommended by a doctor.

For those who have had a medical recommendation to take vitamins as a supplement: Vitamin supplements might focus on B vitamins, especially B12, and also vitamin D and fish oil.

Garden of Life supplements are sold at some health food stores, and appear to contain products that are vegan, GMO free, and sometimes “raw” to permit pro-biotics and better digestion. Some companies throw more exotic vitamin cocktails into “brain formulas”: coenzyme Q10, curcumin, ashwagandha, coconut or MCT oil, and citicoline. A brand called Diamond Mind cited in Better Nutrition claims to have an “advanced mental cognition formula” which contains some of these and is yours without any lifestyle changes for about a $22 bottle. Shots are also available in many pharmacies, such as Pharmaca, for B12; but you may wish to consult a doctor to confirm B12 deficiency before rushing in for this.

Problems with vitamins and self medication

A problem with vitamins as a self-medicated solution is that even if some vitamins are important for cognitive functions, many self-medicating people may not have any vitamin deficiencies (and may in fact be overeating or taking overly concentrated doses of vitamins, causing side effects). Others may have completely different primary risk factors. Still others may be vitamin deficient due to factors other than diets, and the vitamins may not be properly absorbed through pills. Some vitamins taken to excess may cause other problems; excess intake of some B vitamins for example could cause cancer.

Meanwhile, some vitamins and nutritional supplements do not seem to have any benefit at all to prevent dementia. Ginkgo, a traditional Chinese medicine to improve cognitive ability, apparently has no medically documented memory benefit: “To date, adequately powered clinical trials testing the effect of ginkgo biloba on dementia incidence are lacking,” according to clinical trials published in studies of the National Institute of Health.

How about preventing dementia primarily through exercise?

An article in the NY Times suggests you should seek to prevent dementia mostly through exercise, not pills. Here, examples of exercise include both physical exercises such as long walks, and brain exercises which could range from brain games (e.g. Sudoku and crossword puzzles) to regular reading or music lessons. This article cites doctors who are particularly strong in their belief that “supplements won’t prevent dementia.” Further, it suggests that medical claims on supplements have not been backed by the US Food and Drug Administration. Quite the contrary: “Over the past five years, the agency has taken action against 40… products making Alzheimer’s claims.

The NY Times offers a caveat when people are prescribed medicines or vitamins to counter high blood pressure, a risk factor in dementia. But high blood pressure might also successfully be lowered through exercise.

What physical exercises are best?

The World Health Organization focuses on “150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise every week, or 75 weekly minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise,” to keep Alzeimer’s at bay.

Another exhausting review of studies of Alzeimer’s by Gregory Panza — an exercise physiologist in the Department of Cardiology at Hartford Hospital, concurred that while many types of exercise may have a benefit, the clearest benefit appears to come from extensive aerobics.

“Aerobics” in these studies generally includes brisk walking, jogging, swimming, cycling and other activities that boost the heart rate and strengthen the heart and lungs. 

Meanwhile, mentally challenging exercises and games, as opposed to physical sports, are also considered beneficial.WebMD lists brain exercises that might have some benefit:

  • Learn something new, such as a second language or a musical instrument.
  • Play board games, cards, or new games. “The extra bonus of activities like these? Social connections also help your brain.”
  • Work on crossword, number, or other kinds of puzzles.
  • Play online memory games or video games.
  • Read, write, or sign up for local adult education classes.
photo by Sebastian Pichler on Unsplash

Brain exercises are not much of a focus of this website, except that any exercise may be a more natural, preventative “medicine” than a synthetic pill that may not be easily digested, may not work, and may have side effects.

Can you climb a set of stairs every day instead of taking an elevator? Can you park further away from your job in a parking lot, or walk to a bus? Join a fitness class or take longer or steeper walks with your dog? Join a bicycle club? The benefits may extend beyond avoidance of dementia later in life, and there may be no side effects.

Featured photo: A family hike may be aerobic, and also socially and educationally stimulating. (c) Emeraldology 2019