Better brain health through behavior is promoted

Better brain health through behavior is promoted

 By Paula E. Hartman-Stein, Ph.D.

The National Psychologist, Vol 24, No. 4, p. 18. (July/Augut 2015)

                With the American public bombarded many times a day from television, internet and print ads bearing the message, “Better living through chemicals,” it is rare to hear about the role of behavior in overall health and especially in the health of the aging brain.

The White House Conference on Aging (WHCOA), a once per decade event, scheduled for July 13th, has been using social media to get the word out about behavior and lifestyle changes that can influence healthy aging.

In mid- June the WHCOA offered a free webinar, co-sponsored with the Alzheimer’s Association, to examine what is known about brain health and efforts to address cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s in states and communities throughout the country.

Molly Wagster, Ph.D., research scientist from the National Institutes on Aging, reviewed evidence on the benefits of older adults engaging in aerobic exercise, ballroom dancing, acting in community theater, cognitive training exercises and eating plant- based foods, such as the Mediterranean diet.

After summarizing a Finnish study published in Lancet in March 2015 of 600 older adults at risk for cognitive impairment who engaged in multiple interventions over two years that focused on nutrition, physical exercise, cognitive computer games and close monitoring of blood pressure, she said, “Combinations of interventions may provide the strongest approach to maintain or even improve cognitive functioning.”

Throughout the webinar distinctions were made between normal cognitive aging and diseases such as Alzheimer’s. According to Jane Tilly, DrPH, from the Administration for Community Living and the Administration on Aging, “No activity, supplement or medicine has yet been shown to reduce risk of or prevent Alzheimer’s disease.”

What is the difference then between promoting brain health and preventing Alzheimer’s disease?

Peter Whitehouse, MD, Ph.D., professor of neurology at Case Western Reserve University and president of the Intergenerational Schools International, who spoke at a regional WHCOA conference in Cleveland in April said in an interview, “There is no good way of knowing with certainty who has cognitive aging free of disease and who has it with disease, although some researchers contend that we can minimize the risks of normal brain aging but not necessarily Alzheimer’s through public health interventions.”

One of the 1,500 registrants for the national webinar raised the question of the usefulness of medications in brain health. Wagster said that medications such as Aricept and Namenda have been shown to have a modest effect of slowing down progression of dementia by a few months, less than a year. “They are being marketed for that reason, to slow progression.” They have not been examined to reduce normal age-related cognitive decline, she said.

Whitehouse applauds the efforts of the WHCOA. “The WHCOA process is taking an innovative and balanced approach to considering aging in America. Its organizers are being creative in encouraging our country to rethink aging itself and the role of elders. It is balanced because it is emphasizing lifestyle, social determinants, financial security, and community in promoting health and not overemphasizing medical approaches. This advice should motivate increased attention in the public health space around brain health.”

Besides healthy aging, the other areas reviewed by the conference are retirement security, long term services and supports and elder justice. The WHCOA will be streamed to the public live on July 13. For more information, go to