I don’t know how many times I’ve used the expression, “I would rather stick rusty needles in my eyeballs.” Like in answer to the question, “would you like to donate to Joe Mercola’s defense fund against FDA lawsuits?” Now here is the interesting thing. I could have sworn up and down, inside and out, that I got that line from Jack Nicholson in “Terms of Endearment.” But alas, bad memory. That was revealed when I checked the scene in the film. What Jack actually says in response to his new girlfriend (Shirley MacLaine) asking if he wants to come in, is “I’d rather stick needles in my eyes.” No rust is involved. I have no idea where I got the “rusty needles.”
Why bring up this story that seems of little importance? It was triggered by recent reports of Jack Nicholson being afflicted with memory problems, possibly a sign of dementia. Apparently, Jack has not left his home for over a year and friends say they have noted memory lapses. Of course, we don’t really know how accurate these reports are but Jack is 85 and some degree of memory impairment at that age is not unusual. This brings up a question. Is a decline in memory with age inevitable or is it preventable?
That is the question a group of researchers in China, collaborating with McGill University neurologist Dr. Serge Gauthier, addressed. Their goal was to investigate the role that six lifestyle factors may play in offering protection against memory loss. Five times during a ten-year period, the memory function of some 29,000 subjects, all over the age of 60, was assessed via a standardized word memorization and recall test. The participants’ diet, activity status, extent of social contacts, smoking frequency, alcohol consumption and cognitive activity as in reading or playing games, were evaluated through detailed questionnaires. They were then categorized as being in a “favourable” or “unfavourable” group, depending on how they adhered to what the researchers believed were optimal lifestyle factors.
The “favourable group” exhibited a slower decline in memory, even in those subjects who had a genetic disposition for memory loss in that they were carriers of the APOE4 gene, a known risk factor for memory loss. As a result, the researchers concluded that a healthy lifestyle is associated with a slower memory decline. Furthermore, among the six lifestyle factors studied, diet appeared to play the most significant role. An interesting finding indeed, but how meaningful are these observations in practical terms?
At the beginning of the study, there was almost no difference in the word recall test between the two groups, but as the years passed, the difference increased. After ten years, there was about a 5-point difference in the word-memory score on a scale that goes from 0 to 20. That certainly is statistically significant, but what it means in practical terms is hard to say. Does better recall of a list of memorized words also mean that you are then more likely to remember information you came across in the past, such as people’s names, historical facts or ways to solve an algebraic equation? Maybe, maybe not.
Then there is the question of how “optimal” was determined when it comes to a lifestyle factor. With smoking, it is easy. No smoking is the best. But when it comes to social contact with others, whether more is better is a judgement call with not much evidence. Then the diet. This was evaluated by simple questionnaires that assume the optimal amounts of legumes, cereals, fruits, eggs, nuts, meat and dairy are known. For example, when it comes to oils, less than 30 grams was judged to be optimal. That’s a stretch, because it depends on what kind of oil. Extra virgin olive oil will not have the same effect as refined corn oil. “Optimal” dairy intake was judged to be 300 grams a day, but whether this comes from yogurt with active bacterial cultures or from butter makes a difference.
While one cannot conclude from this study that the difference in memory decline as evaluated by a word recall test between the “favourable” and “unfavourable” lifestyle groups translates to an effect that would be noted in everyday life, we can conclude that memory is modifiable by lifestyle factors. The task now is to work out the details. Are there specific nutrients one should look for? We need more than vague generalities about the number of fruits, eggs or legumes to be consumed per week. Is playing chess five times a week better at slowing memory loss than solving the weekend crossword puzzle? Does going on a cruise on which Andrew Wakefield is the featured speaker count as “cognitive activity that can improve memory?” Even if it does, I think I would rather stick rusty needles in my eyeballs.