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I'm a Brain Expert and Beg You Never Believe These Dementia Myths

Here's how to tell fact from fiction.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Our brain is our most important organ—it holds all of our important memories, allows us to think and feel, and coordinates our movements and actions. Because of the wide range of activities, it's responsible for, it is not surprising it's the most complex organ. As such, the brain is widely considered the last frontier in medicine. Scientists do not fully understand the causes of neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's and other types of dementias, nor do we have treatments available that can slow the progression or prevent these diseases altogether. Despite progress in understanding the causes of dementia, we have much to learn. With so much left to uncover, it is not uncommon to see misconceptions about this vital organ floating around.

While it is true that how we treat our brains through healthy dieting, exercise, and brain stimulation impacts our risk for developing dementia, there have been many misleading claims made by those willing to play on people's fears of developing dementia. Because we know that how we treat our brains each and every day is so important, it's important to separate the facts from the fiction so we can take effective and proactive steps toward brain health.

Below are some common brain health myths. Can you spot fact from fiction? Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss Already Had COVID? These Symptoms May "Never Go Away".

1

Are You at Risk of Dementia?

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Dementia is the term used to describe several neurological diseases that cause progressive decline in memory, thinking, reasoning, personality or behavior. Alzheimer's is the most common dementia but not the only one—others such as Lewy body disease, Parkinson's disease, Frontotemporal dementia, and repeated strokes (also called Vascular dementia) are less common than Alzheimer's. Several decades ago the term Alzheimer's was used synonymously with dementia, however, now we know a lot more about these other types of dementia. About 25% of dementia is caused by non-Alzheimer's types of dementia. Dementia risk increases with age, especially over the age of 65, but can be diagnosed as early as 20. It is estimated that about 50% of people age 85 or older have dementia.

Anyone that plans to live over the age of 60 is at risk for developing dementia, but that risk is even greater for minorities. According to the Alzheimer's Association, Black Americans age 65 and older are roughly twice as likely as White Americans in that same age group to develop Alzheimer's disease or another dementia. For Latinx, the ratio is about 1.5 to 1.

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Myth 1: Only People With a Family History of Dementia are at Risk

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Fact: Our age and brain health are more important risk factors for the development of dementia.

While it is true that genes play some role in our risk of developing dementia, our age and brain health are probably just as important in determining who will ultimately develop dementia. In fact, recent research has showed that brain health lifestyle factors such as getting a high school education, treating high blood pressure, and exercising are about 6 times as important as genetic factors.

It is important to note that right now science can only speak to reducing risk. Ultimately, the reasons why a person can develop dementia are still unknown and even the healthiest of people (with or without a family history) may develop dementia. However, the science is abundantly clear that the way we treat our brains during the entire course of our lives, most importantly, in our 40s-60s has a tremendous impact on who goes on to develop dementia. The concept of life-long brain plasticity means that our lifestyles and behaviors play a significant role in how our brains (and therefore our minds) evolve physically and functionally as we get older.

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Myth 2: Brain Health Requires Spending a Lot of Money on Nutritional Supplements

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Fact: We see supplement advertising everywhere—many touting unsubstantiated benefits—but the research evidence is relatively slim to suggest that supplements are necessary for good brain health. In fact, most studies that looked at whether supplements can significantly improve memory and thinking or reduce risk for dementia have failed. This doesn't mean that supplements don't work or can't be helpful, but it does mean that we have almost no ability to determine which supplements work and what doses are helpful.

While data on supplements is murky at best, the data is very clear that sticking to a balanced diet that includes a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats (fish, avocados, nuts/seed, yogurt) and ditches the processed sugars and fried fats—is the most proven way to reducing your risk for developing dementia. So in lieu of expensive supplements, turn toward the produce section in your local grocery store for your brain health.  

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Myth 3: There are Specific Types of Mental Activities You Have to Do to Keep Your Brain Healthy

Group seniors with dementia builds a tower in the nursing home from colorful building blocks
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Fact: So far research hasn't demonstrated that one type of cognitive activity is the best. In fact most research suggests that it's the time and effort a person puts into an activity that are the most important factors in keeping their brain sharp. This can be different for different people. We recommend at least one hour of active participation in a cognitively stimulating activity each day. This can be as simple as a phone call with friends or doing word jumbles to more complex tasks such as learning a new language or instrument. The key to sharpening memory is introducing the brain to new and complex tasks rather than passive activities such as watching television. When determining whether or not an activity can have some cognitive benefit, what's most important is that you are challenged and you are leaning. This is really the only way to exercise your brain to grow new neuropathways as well as support old ones.

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Myth 4: Losing Your Keys or Forgetting Names are Signs of Dementia

Stressed middle 60s aged worker woman massaging head suffering of headache in home office.
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Fact: Just like the rest of our body parts, our brains age as we get older. While we gain wisdom and knowledge as we get older, it's natural for our brains to get a bit slower (called processing speed) and have difficulty with multitasking. It's also common for our brains to lose a bit of resilience as we age, so that sleepless night, stress/anxiety, or medication side effect may be more pronounced. While mild memory loss is a normal part of aging and everyone's entitled to a bad day here and there, cognitive problems shouldn't get worse over time and shouldn't dramatically interfere with normal daily functioning. If a person is having severe problems with their work, getting lost, or repeatedly missing appointment it's time to get checked out.

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Myth 5: Medications are the Only Way to Improve Your Brain's Performance

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Fact: Exercise has the best record of success for improving brain function. Although there have been thousands of studies and millions of dollars spent, only four medications have shown to improve cognition. Importantly, these studies showed that the only people receiving benefit from these medications were people who had been diagnosed with dementia. They did not help people with mild symptoms. On the other hand there have been a number of studies showing that even moderate levels of cardiovascular exercise can have benefits on thinking, reasoning, and multi-tasking. In these studies, research participants generally had to elevate their heart rates above 100 beats per minute, exercise for at least two hours a week, and stick to it for at least six weeks. Benefits were seen even in people with mild or minimal symptoms (those with occasional forgetfulness). So it's abundantly clear that the strongest research evidence suggests that moderate cardiovascular exercise, which can be achieved through brisk walking, riding a bike, or swimming is sufficient enough to improve memory.

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The Final Word from Neuropsychiatrist

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There is no magic bullet to prevent dementia, but we do know that implementing a healthy lifestyle can decrease your risk. It is never too late to take a proactive approach to your brain health – you can do so today by visiting HealthyBrains.org for a free brain health assessment and receive customizable tips to improve your brain health. The platform is also available in Spanish at CerebrosSanos.org. And to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Aaron Ritter, M.D., staff neuropsychiatrist at Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.