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Medicines and supplements don’t prevent memory loss

Despite claims by makers of some medicines and supplements, there’s no evidence that they help prevent memory loss or problems with thinking clearly in healthy people. Some kinds of physical exercises may help more.

BMJ Group News

What do we know already?

smiling elderly couple

Mild cognitive impairment is the name for the thinking or memory problems that can affect the mind as we get older. It’s not uncommon to have some trouble thinking or remembering things as we age. But mild cognitive impairment is when a person has more severe problems than would normally be expected in most people of the same age.

Between 10 in 100 and 25 in 100 people over the age of 70 are thought to have mild cognitive impairment. Around 10 in every 100 people with mild cognitive impairment will go on to have dementia. As we age as a society, there’s more interest in things healthy people can do to avoid having memory and thinking problems in later life. Lots of claims are made for different supplements and lifestyles, and it can be hard to know which, if any, might be helpful.

To try to get some answers, researchers looked at 32 good-quality studies of 38,000 adults with no cognitive impairment. These adults tried different medicines and non-medical treatments to try to prevent memory and thinking problems as they grew older.

What does the new study say?

The results showed that:

  • Medicines weren’t helpful in preventing memory or thinking problems. The studies looked at various medicines, including drugs used to help the symptoms of dementia, hormones such as oestrogen and testosterone, blood pressure drugs, and anti-inflammatory drugs.
  • Oestrogen and anti-inflammatory drugs were actually linked with increased memory problems and dementia.
  • Supplements such as vitamins or ginkgo biloba didn’t help prevent memory or thinking problems.
  • Making lifestyle changes to lower the risk of heart problems, such as losing weight or stopping smoking, didn’t have an effect on memory or thinking problems.
  • Some kinds of physical exercise did improve memory in some tests. People who followed a programme of moderate- and high-intensity resistance training (lifting weights) with a professional trainer showed more improvement in their memory or thinking than people who just did gentle stretching.
  • Mental training and exercises, most often using computer programs, did improve people’s memory. In some studies, the improvements lasted at least five years. But the improvements (of around 2 points on a 100-point scale) probably weren’t big enough to make a meaningful difference to what people can do in their everyday lives.

How reliable is the research?

All the studies included in the review were of a type called randomised controlled trials. In these trials, people are divided into groups that have different treatments. This is the best type of study to look at the effects of treatments. But some of the studies were small, lasted only a short time, or had problems with their design that may have affected how reliable the results are.

What does this mean for me?

This study shows that there may be no quick fixes to prevent otherwise healthy people getting memory problems as they get older. Some treatments can help the symptoms once these problems start, but there’s no evidence that taking any drugs or supplements can stop the problems from happening in the first place. For now, staying physically and mentally active seems to help more than anything else.

Published on April 18, 2013

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