At a certain age, many people feel they don’t have to exercise anymore. But continued exercise can help your brain. Again, we have some data that we published that suggests that even moderate amounts, such as walking 10 to 20 minutes a day, is sufficient to change things— even at advanced age.

I think a lot of people forget to keep doing the small things day in and day out that can add up and make a difference, like parking farther from the restaurant, or choosing the stairs over the elevator. One of my favorite brain health faux pas is seeing people drive between stores at the mall, instead of walking.

And what can we do when dementia has begun to take hold?

I think we have to think about novel ways to help people compensate, and that’s one of the things we’re doing here at UC Davis Health. You may not be able to build up the disease resistance anymore once you’ve entered significant cognitive decline, but you can work to compensate for it.

For example, I suspect the average 65-year-old doesn’t have a daily calendar. Life has slowed and they don’t think that they need it. But if you have memory impairment, a simple daily calendar can help quite substantially. Again, small changes can add up to make a big difference.

Related UC Davis Research
Pathways to early detection and intervention

Testing interventions

  • A $4.7 million federal grant is helping UC Davis researchers conduct a first-of-its-kind study to determine if vitamin D supplementation in the elderly can effectively help prevent cognitive decline, and whether the association is stronger among underserved populations. A 2015 UC Davis-Rutgers study found vitamin D insufficiency among the elderly highly correlated with accelerated cognitive decline and impaired performance, particularly in domains with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. The effect was “substantial,” with individuals with low vitamin D declining at a rate three times faster than those with adequate levels. More than half of Caucasians tested had low vitamin D, and 70 percent of African Americans and Hispanics. Because vitamin D status is easily treatable, “if supplementation improves cognitive outcomes, this could have a large impact on public health, especially among Latinos and African Americans,” said lead investigator John Olichney, clinical core co-leader for the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center.
  • A $4.9 million state grant will help the center’s East Bay location test a lifestyle intervention designed to treat older adults with strong risk factors for Type 2 diabetes and associated cognitive decline. “We’re looking at fitness versus diet and seeing if one is better than the other for specific people,” said David Johnson, director of the East Bay office. “There are reasons to think that blacks and whites might respond differently to the different parts of the diabetes program. Finding the answers would allow us to tailor interventions to meet the specific needs of our patients better.” African Americans are at greatest risk for cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s, most likely due to variations in lifestyle and health.

Clues for early detection

  • A 2013 UC Davis study published in JAMA Neurology suggested that degeneration of the fornix, a small, wishbone-shaped structure deep inside the brain, may provide the earliest clues to future cognitive decline. “This could be a very early and useful marker for future incipient decline,” said lead author Evan Fletcher.
  • A $5.4 million federal grant is helping researchers at UC Davis and UC San Diego study how electrical pulses called event-related brain potentials (ERPs) might help detect the earliest stages of cognitive problems in pre-clinical Alzheimer’s. Detecting brain function changes with greater accuracy could improve clinical trials across the Alzheimer’s spectrum, Olichney said.