The study’s findings don’t mean that people should stop taking ginkgo (as long as they do so in safe doses, under the supervision of a physician), says Dr. Steinerman. But, he adds, “I certainly wouldn’t recommend that anyone start it.”
Ginkgo may not be effective, but there are many other healthy habits you can try to help keep your brain healthy:
•Exercise your mind. Activities that stimulate the brain—such as learning a new language, playing brain-teasing games, or doing crossword puzzles—appear to delay the onset of dementia, says Dr. Steinerman, although it’s still unclear if they can actually prevent or slow down cognitive decline. These activities can’t hurt, however, and many new brain games for computers and video-game consoles (such as Brain Age and Brain Challenge) provide more options than ever before.
•Exercise your body. The evidence linking physical activity with slower cognitive decline is convincing, says Dr. Steinerman. Animal studies have shown that exercise targets a part of the brain directly related to memory and aging, and other research suggests that even moderate exercise—a weekly bike ride, say—is associated with maintaining cognitive function.
•Manage stress. Staying as stress-free as possible is essential for maintaining your sanity in the short term, but it may also be important to your long-term brain function. “High levels of stress can kill nerve cells in the most important areas of the brain for memory,” says Dr. Steinerman. “Stress can actually accelerate cognitive decline and increase the risk for Alzheimer’s.”
•Eat right. Diets that are good for the heart are also believed to have beneficial effects on the brain, says Dr. Steinerman. Research suggests that a diet rich in fish, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats may promote brain health. A 2009 study in the Archives of Neurology, for instance, found that people who adhered most closely to the Mediterranean Diet had a 28% lower risk for mild cognitive decline than those who didn’t stick to the diet.
•Make friends.Having a rich social life may help delay cognitive decline (although it may not reverse it). Studies have shown that “more social contacts and more social interactions [appear] to be present in people who [don't] develop dementia,” says Dr. DeKosky. “Your number of social contacts [translates] into some kind of brain change” that affects your risk of developing dementia, he says.
None of these habits is a silver bullet, however, and they are probably most effective in combination, says Dr. Steinerman.
Researchers will continue to study the effects of supplements such as ginkgo in hopes of one day creating a drug to prevent and cure cognitive decline, says Dr. DeKosky, but in the meantime patients should incorporate habits such as these into their daily lives.