Patients Can Take Steps to Slow Mental Decline

Mild cognitive impairment may be slowed through exercise, mental activity, healthy diet and other measures

(RxWiki News) A foggy memory and slower thinking don't have to be a part of aging. Patients can take many steps to keep their minds sharp.

A recent study found that mild cognitive impairment (MCI) can be treatable. Staying mentally active, exercising regularly and reducing heart risks may all help older people keep their wits in working order.

Kenneth M. Langa, MD, PhD, co-authored this study with Deborah A. Levine, MD. Both are faculty members in the Division of General Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School and members of the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.

"MCI is hard for both clinicians and for patients and their families, because it's a scary prospect — and because there's still a lot we don't know about this condition," Dr. Langa said in a press release. "We still don't have great answers to give patients and families, but the medical literature shows there are certainly factors that can influence the risk, severity and progression of MCI.”

These researchers pulled relevant data from a search of about 5,000 scientific articles concerning MCI. Based on their review, the doctors put together suggestions on how older patients may prevent or slow MCI.

An estimated 1 in 5 Americans older than 65 may hit some rough patches when it comes to their mental capabilities. Memory or mental function that is "slipping" a bit may be referred to as MCI. Although these mental lapses remain mild for some, others may progress to dementia, which is a severe decline in brain function that can interfere with daily life.

Drs. Langa and Levine recommended that older adults pursue aerobic exercise and mental activities because they may have some benefit for the brain.

These researchers encouraged patients to take steps to reduce stroke risk, too. Clots or ruptures in the blood vessels can impair brain function. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke says that stroke risk can be lowered by treating high blood pressure, lowering cholesterol, not smoking, eating a healthy diet, staying active, and controlling diabetes and atrial fibrillation.

Patients concerned about their memory and thinking abilities should speak to a doctor. Doctors can run tests that may reveal causes of declining mental ability, such as vitamin deficiencies.

Drs. Langa and Levine said medications may be at the root of some mental fogginess. They referred to studies that found that taking multiple medications may muddle memory and thinking.

"It is important to avoid overtreatment of high blood pressure and diabetes because low blood pressure and low blood sugar may increase the risk of cognitive decline and other patient harms," Dr. Langa said.

While some people with MCI progress to dementia and lose the ability to function on their own, mental decline can be slowed.

“The numbers are less scary than many people believe," Dr. Levine said. "The majority of people with MCI will not progress to dementia and loss of independence, even after 10 years. Some patients with MCI will actually have improved cognition after a year or two, if their cognitive test scores were brought down by an acute illness that gets addressed."

Drs. Langa and Levine said more research is needed on the factors that heighten the risk of MCI and progression to dementia.

This study was published Dec. 16 in JAMA.

Drs. Langa and Levine received support from the National Institutes of Health and the SCAN Foundation. They disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
December 16, 2014