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Finding Ways to Reduce the Onset of Dementia

Brain drawing“Use it or lose it.”
That’s what Dr. Jody Nicholson, associate professor of psychology, will tell you if you ask her what you can do to keep your brain healthy as you age. Though declines in some aspects of memory are inevitable, you can help to maintain your optimal level of functioning by remaining active — socially, physically and cognitively.
Challenging your brain in new ways is also key. Think of it as creating an ever-evolving exercise routine for your mind. “You should continue to do things that you really love, but also try to diversify,” Nicholson said. “Try a new type of activity, things that will stimulate your brain in a novel way. Any way you can make new connections in your brain by doing new things, that’s going to be helpful with preventing the onset of dementia.”
What other factors influence brain health as you age?
According to the 2020 report of the Lancet Commission, research has supported 12 different things to attend to over a lifespan that can help reduce 40% of the risk of developing dementia.*
It begins with education early in life and beyond, as people with higher levels of education have a lower risk of dementia. Other factors in midlife include protecting your hearing and reducing risk of traumatic brain injury, hypertension and alcohol use. Obesity, smoking, social isolation, depression, physical inactivity, diabetes and air pollution also have all been connected to dementia risk.
“So, it’s things that we already know,” Nicholson said. “If you live a healthy life, you’re going to age better and that can relate to cognitive aging, not just physical aging. This provides some guidance for individuals of things to consider in health decision-making, but obviously not all of these things are under people’s direct control. Therefore, this is something we need to think about at the societal level and recognize the playing field in aging is not level and health disparities in cognitive aging exist for more vulnerable populations.”
Can brain games also help delay the onset of dementia?
The short answer is yes. Strong preliminary data from randomized clinical trials have shown that a particular type of computerized training, known as cognitive training, can improve cognition and transfer to improving everyday activities. Nicholson also said that recent evidence further indicates that such cognitive training may reduce dementia risk.
The longer answer is that more research is needed to determine what types of cognitive training are most effective. Nicholson is now involved in that type of research. She is leading the Preventing Alzheimer’s with Cognitive Training (PACT) study at UNF, one of five research-focused sites across the U.S. that have received a funding grant from the National Institutes of Health, specifically the National Institute on Aging (see As the UNF study proceeds, roughly 1,000 participants will receive initial instruction in person and then work remotely on computerized training sessions for six weeks. They will return for two sessions in each of the following two years and then participate in a follow-up evaluation the third year.
Nicholson is excited that the study offers hope for finding a low-cost, nonpharmaceutical approach to delaying dementia. “We know that there’s a genetic component to Alzheimer’s, and we know that some people will be diagnosed someday, but with the right training they may be able to push back the onset of dementia,” she said. “They may be able to give themselves more years of higher functioning.”
What else can you do?
Have you walked into a room and forgotten your reason for being there? Or occasionally found yourself struggling to remember a name or word? Those incidences are “cognitively typical” according to psychology experts or perhaps indicate that your mind is busy on other issues.
Yet, whatever your concerns, as a proactive approach ― similar to other age-related medical screenings such as colonoscopies or mammograms ― Nicholson suggests that everyone over 65 speak to their medical provider about getting an evaluation with a neurologist to determine a baseline, especially if they see any changes in their memory. Your memory may be as exactly as expected for your age or you may require further testing. “I would say we have to get beyond the fear that something may be wrong because the faster you get that information, the faster you can do something about it,” she said. “With that information you can empower yourself, your family and your support system to try to be sure that any decline is as slow as possible.”
*Livingston, G., Huntley, J., Sommerlad, A., Ames, D., Ballard, C., Banerjee, S., ... & Mukadam, N. (2020). Dementia prevention, intervention, and care: 2020 report of the Lancet Commission. The Lancet, 396(10248), 413-446.