You know the feeling: You’ve misplaced your keys for what seems to be the zillionth time, or forget the name of a friend you’ve known for years. Does this mean that you’re on the way to developing Alzheimer’s disease?
Not necessarily, experts say. What you’re experiencing may simply be a minor memory lapse tied to growing older, or mild cognitive impairment (MCI) — a common condition that may, or may not, progress to Alzheimer’s disease.
The good news is that a handful of non-drug treatments — including a therapy known as neurofeedback training — can help with memory lapses and MCI.
“If you can catch someone in the early stages of memory loss, you may be able to slow down the degeneration of their brain,” says Ed Carlton, a chiropractor and certified neurofeedback trainer.
“The idea behind neurofeedback is that, if you can get the brain to exercise, you can get it to work more efficiently.”
Carlton says he’s had the greatest success with using neurofeedback with MCI patients, not those who already have Alzheimer’s disease.
MCI is a condition in which a person has mild but measurable changes in their thinking ability that are noticeable, but do not affect their ability to carry out everyday activities.
Approximately 15-20 percent of people aged 65 or older have MCI, the Alzheimer’s Association says.
People with MCI are 32 percent more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease within five years, and the risk is higher for those that have memory problems, research shows.
There are no medications currently approved to treat MCI. In addition, drugs approved to treat Alzheimer’s disease don’t prevent the progression of MCI to dementia.
But neurofeedback training has had promising results.
The training involves seating a person with MCI in front of a video screen and recording his or her brain waves while watching a video.
“You have to be working with a patient who can still focus in front of a video monitor,” Carlton notes.
If these brain waves show that the person has become inattentive, the screen momentarily flickers or blurs, forcing the person to focus on it again.
“If these corrections are performed sufficiently, the brain will develop new neural pathways” that boost brain power and memory, he says.
Neurofeedback training, which costs about $100 per session, is not covered by health insurance. Generally, 30-40 sessions are needed to obtain lasting results, he notes.
According to Carlton, there are no age limits, and he has treated patients even in their 90s with good results, he says.
Several large-scale clinical studies are underway to examine the potential benefits of neurofeedback training in MCI and Alzheimer’s disease.
But some smaller research efforts have had promising results, suggesting neurofeedback training can improve cognition in some people, including those with Alzheimer’s disease.
A recent German study, published in Frontiers in Neurology, tracked 25 elderly patients — 10 diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and 15 who were healthy.
They were divided into two groups; one underwent neurofeedback training, and the other was given a sham treatment.
While the results showed no overall brain changes, the Alzheimer’s patients had improvements in their brain connectivity, suggesting that the treatment might counteract cognitive decline.
Another small study, published in Neurophysiology Clinician, examined the impact of neurofeedback on 10 patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
Researchers from the Netherlands found that patients, aged 61-90, who received neurofeedback training had improvements in their memory, and their other thinking functions remained stable.
The scientists noted, however, that the study is small and more research is needed.
In addition to neurofeedback training, Carlton and other experts note that research has shown a handful of strategies can help maintain and improve brain function as you age. Among them:
Check your medications: Some drugs, especially statins and blood pressure medications, can cause side effects that mimic dementia, such as memory loss and confusion. Ask your doctor if any drugs you are taking can have such effects or whether lowering the dosages you are taking might be a good idea, especially if you are age 65 and older.
Play brain games: Challenging your mind can help maintain your mental edge. Crossword puzzles, Sudoku, or on-line brain-training programs (Luminosity, Brain HQ, Cognifit) can all help keep the brain functioning optimally and boost memory.
Be active: Cardiovascular exercise boosts blood flow to the brain, which helps keep your thinking sharp. Less strenuous forms, like Zumba, Pilates or cycling, are excellent choices for older people.
Eat nutritious foods: Concentrate on whole foods, eliminating packaged, processed products from your diet. Boost your protein intake; eggs are a good choice, as well as limited amounts of red meat. But steer clear of sugar, which promotes inflammation that can damage your body’s blood vessels, including those in the brain.
Take fish oil: Omega-3 fatty acids in fish and fish oil pills have been shown to boost brain function. Take 500 to 1,000 milligrams of fish oil daily, experts recommend.
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