A new study has failed to find any conclusive evidence that lifestyle changes can prevent cognitive decline in older adults.
But researchers say there are still good reasons to make positive changes in how we live and what we eat as we age.
Cognitive decline is the loss of ability to learn new skills, or recall words, names, and faces that is most common as we age. To reduce or avoid it, researchers have examined the effect of smoking, diet, brain-challenging games, exercise and other strategies.
Researchers at Duke University sifted through more than 160 published studies and found an absence of strong evidence that any of these approaches can make a big difference.
"In the observational studies we found that some of the B vitamins, like folic acid, were beneficial." said co-author James Burke, who helped design the study. "Exercise, diet, cognitive stimulation showed some positive effects, although the evidence was not so strong that we could actually consider these firmly established."
Some previous studies have suggested that challenging your brain with mentally stimulating activities might help. Burke said that actually does seem to help, based on randomized studies - the researcher's gold standard.
"Cognitive stimulation is one of the areas where we did find some benefit. The exact type of stimulation that an individual uses is not as important as being intellectually engaged," Burke said.
The expert review also found insufficient evidence to recommend any drugs or dietary supplements that could prevent or slow cognitive decline.
However, given that there is at least some evidence for positive effects from some of these lifestyle changes, plus other benefits apparently unrelated to cognitive decline, Burke offered some recommendations.
"I think that by having people adopt a healthy lifestyle, both from a medical standpoint as well as nutritional and cognitive stimulation standpoint, that we can reduce the incidence of cognitive decline, which will be proof that these factors are, in fact, important."
James Burke of Duke University is one of the authors of a study reviewing previous research on cognitive decline. The paper is published online by the Annals of Internal Medicine.