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Obamacare Repeal Could Leave Millions Uninsured

Trump has vowed he will repeal Obamacare and replace it with something "better." This could affect millions of Californians. Specifics are scarce, but one plan Trump has outlined is to change how the federal government funds Medicaid, health coverage for low-income people.

PBS NewsHour

Latest Republican health care bill would leave 22 million more Americans without insurance

Photo by Ulrich Baumgarten via Getty Images.

An estimated 22 million more people would lose health insurance by 2026 under the latest Republican-led Senate bill to reform health care than if the Affordable Care Act remained in place, according to a report released Thursday by the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation. Photo by Ulrich Baumgarten via Getty Images.

An estimated 22 million more people would lose health insurance by 2026 under the latest Republican-led Senate bill to reform health care than if the Affordable Care Act remained in place, according to a report released Thursday by the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation.

The reworked version of the Better Care Reconciliation Act, which failed to earn enough support for a vote this week, would reduce the federal deficit by $420 billion over the next decade, according to the new analysis. The earlier version of the bill would have cut the deficit by only $321 billion.

Senators were able to make larger cuts to the deficit in their latest version of the bill by preserving certain taxes that Republicans had killed in the older version. They found more savings by reducing and ending certain federal matching funds and capping per-capita-based payments for Medicaid. According to the budget office, the latest Senate bill still cuts deep into Medicaid, eliminating $756 billion from the program over 10 years, compared to the $772 billion the earlier version sought to eliminate.

Still, the number of uninsured Americans in the latest bill changed little from the first version of the Senate health care bill, which would also leave 22 million more Americans without health insurance, the budget office said in June.

Axios editor David Nather pointed out the CBO report also says some deductibles would exceed the out of pocket limits set by the ACA, which could violate the law.


Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to reporters after a lunch with President Donald Trump.

Earlier this week, faced with a lack of support for the latest version of the health care bill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he would instead push for a full repeal of Obamacare, with a two-year deadline to develop new health care infrastructure. But on Wednesday, President Donald Trump invited McConnell and other Republican senators to a White House lunch to talk about the health care efforts. (The August recess shouldn’t happen unless he has legislation on his desk, Trump told lawmakers.)

The CBO said 32 million more people would lose insurance by 2026 if the Affordable Care Act was repealed and not replaced. A recent AP-NORC poll showed only 13 percent of Americans support repealing Obamacare without other health care infrastructure in place.

READ MORE: Trump administration ends Affordable Care Act assistance contracts in 18 cities

After the Wednesday lunch at the White House, some senators were still trying to save the revised health care legislation, rather than repeal Obamacare altogether. To revive the bill, they will need 50 of the GOP’s 52 votes in the Senate.

This is the latest installment in a series of budget office reports on the Republican efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

In March, the budget office said 24 million more people would be uninsured under the plan that emerged from the Republican-led House of Representatives. And in May, the office found the revised House health care bill, which passed on a 217-213 vote, would lower federal deficits by $119 billion but leave 23 million more people than if Obamacare was left in place over the next decade.

The post Latest Republican health care bill would leave 22 million more Americans without insurance appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

Trump administration ends Affordable Care Act assistance contracts in 18 cities

Protestors gather during a demonstration against the Republican repeal of the Affordable Care Act, outside the U.S. Capitol
         in Washington, U.S., June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein - RTS182LP

Protestors gather during a demonstration against the Republican repeal of the Affordable Care Act, outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein – RTS182LP

CHICAGO — President Donald Trump’s administration has ended Affordable Care Act contracts that brought assistance into libraries, businesses and urban neighborhoods in 18 cities, meaning shoppers on the insurance exchanges will have fewer places to turn for help signing up for coverage.

Community groups say the move, announced to them by contractors last week, will make it even more difficult to enroll the uninsured and help people already covered re-enroll or shop for a new policy. That’s already a concern because of consumer confusion stemming from the political wrangling in Washington and a shorter enrollment period. People will have 45 days to shop for 2018 coverage, starting Nov. 1 and ending Dec. 15. In previous years, they had twice that much time.

Some see it as another attempt to undermine the health law’s marketplaces by a president who has suggested he should let “Obamacare” fail. The administration, earlier this year, pulled paid advertising for the sign-up website HealthCare.gov, prompting an inquiry by a federal inspector general into that decision and whether it hurt sign-ups.

“There’s a clear pattern of the administration trying to undermine and sabotage the Affordable Care Act.”

Now insurers and advocates are concerned that the administration could further destabilize the marketplaces where people shop for coverage by not promoting them or not enforcing the mandate compelling people to get coverage. The administration has already threatened to withhold payments to insurers to help people afford care, which would prompt insurers to sharply increase prices.

“There’s a clear pattern of the administration trying to undermine and sabotage the Affordable Care Act,” said Elizabeth Hagan, associate director of coverage initiatives for the liberal advocacy group Families USA. “It’s not letting the law fail, it’s making the law fail.”

Two companies — McLean, Virginia-based Cognosante LLC and Falls Church, Virginia-based CSRA Inc. — will no longer help with the sign-ups following a decision by Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services officials not to renew a final option year of the vendors’ contracts. The contracts, awarded in 2013, were never meant to be long term, said CMS spokeswoman Jane Norris in an email.

“These contracts were intended to help CMS provide temporary, in-person enrollment support during the early years” of the exchanges, Norris said. Other federally funded help with enrollment will continue, she said, including a year-round call center and grant-funded navigator programs. The existing program is “robust” and “we have the on-the-ground resources necessary” in key cities, Norris said.

But community advocates expected the vendors’ help for at least another year. “It has our heads spinning about how to meet the needs in communities,” said Inna Rubin of United Way of Metro Chicago, who helps run an Illinois health access coalition.

“These contracts were intended to help CMS provide temporary, in-person enrollment support during the early years.”

CSRA’s current $12.8 million contract expires Aug. 29. Cognosante’s $9.6 million contract expires the same date.

Together, they assisted 14,500 enrollments, far less than 1 percent of the 9.2 million people who signed up through HealthCare.gov, the insurance marketplace serving most states. But some advocates said the groups focused on the healthy, young adults needed to keep the insurance markets stable and prices down.

During the most recent open enrollment period, they operated in the Texas cities of Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Austin, McAllen and El Paso; the Florida cities of Miami, Tampa and Orlando; Atlanta; northern New Jersey; Phoenix; Philadelphia; Indianapolis; New Orleans; Charlotte, North Carolina; Cleveland and Chicago.

The insurance exchanges, accessed by customers through the federal HealthCare.gov or state-run sites, are a way for people to compare and shop for insurance coverage. The health law included grant money for community organizations to train people to help consumers apply for coverage, answer questions and explain differences between the insurance policies offered.

In Illinois, CSRA hired about a dozen enrollment workers to supplement a small enrollment workforce already in the state, Rubin said. The company operated a storefront enrollment center in a Chicago neighborhood from November through April.

“What is the goal of the Trump administration here? Is it to help people? Or to undermine the Affordable Care Act?”

“It was a large room in a retail strip mall near public transit with stations set up where people could come in and sit down” with an enrollment worker, Rubin said.

CSRA spokesman Tom Doheny in an email said the company “is proud of the work we have accomplished under this contract.” He referred other questions to federal officials.

Cognosante worked on enrollment in nine cities in seven states, according to a June 6 post on the company’s website. The work included helping “more than 15,000 Texas consumers” and staffing locations “such as public libraries and local business offices.” A Cognosante spokeswoman referred questions to federal officials.

The health care debate in Congress has many consumers questioning whether “Obamacare” still exists, community advocates said.

“What is the goal of the Trump administration here? Is it to help people? Or to undermine the Affordable Care Act?” said Rob Restuccia, executive director of Boston-based Community Catalyst, a group trying to preserve the health care law.

The post Trump administration ends Affordable Care Act assistance contracts in 18 cities appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

Is it safe to take expired medications?

Dr Lee Cantrell, who helps run the California Poison Control System, in his office with a collection of vintage expired medications, at the University of California San Diego Hospital in San Diego, CA on Friday, July 7, 2017.(Photo by Sandy Huffaker for ProPublica)

The box of prescription drugs had been forgotten in a back closet of a retail pharmacy for so long that some of the pills predated the 1969 moon landing. Most were 30 to 40 years past their expiration dates — possibly toxic, probably worthless.

But to Lee Cantrell, who helps run the California Poison Control System, the cache was an opportunity to answer an enduring question about the actual shelf life of drugs: Could these drugs from the bell-bottom era still be potent?

Cantrell called Roy Gerona, a University of California, San Francisco, researcher who specializes in analyzing chemicals. Gerona had grown up in the Philippines and had seen people recover from sickness by taking expired drugs with no apparent ill effects.

“This was very cool,” Gerona says. “Who gets the chance of analyzing drugs that have been in storage for more than 30 years?”

The age of the drugs might have been bizarre, but the question the researchers wanted to answer wasn’t. Pharmacies across the country — in major medical centers and in neighborhood strip malls — routinely toss out tons of scarce and potentially valuable prescription drugs when they hit their expiration dates.

Gerona and Cantrell, a pharmacist and toxicologist, knew that the term “expiration date” was a misnomer. The dates on drug labels are simply the point up to which the Food and Drug Administration and pharmaceutical companies guarantee their effectiveness, typically at two or three years. But the dates don’t necessarily mean they’re ineffective immediately after they “expire” — just that there’s no incentive for drugmakers to study whether they could still be usable.

ProPublica has been researching why the U.S. health care system is the most expensive in the world. One answer, broadly, is waste — some of it buried in practices that the medical establishment and the rest of us take for granted.  We’ve documented how hospitals often discard pricey new supplies, how nursing homes trash valuable medications after patients pass away or move out, and how drug companies create expensive combinations of cheap drugs. Experts estimate such squandering eats up about $765 billion a year — as much as a quarter of all the country’s health care spending.

What if the system is destroying drugs that are technically “expired” but could still be safely used?

The dates don’t necessarily mean they’re ineffective immediately after they “expire” — just that there’s no incentive for drugmakers to study whether they could still be usable.

In his lab, Gerona ran tests on the decades-old drugs, including some now defunct brands such as the diet pills Obocell (once pitched to doctors with a portly figurine called “Mr. Obocell”) and Bamadex. Overall, the bottles contained 14 different compounds, including antihistamines, pain relievers and stimulants. All the drugs tested were in their original sealed containers.

The findings surprised both researchers: A dozen of the 14 compounds were still as potent as they were when they were manufactured, some at almost 100 percent of their labeled concentrations.

“Lo and behold,” Cantrell says, “The active ingredients are pretty darn stable.”

Cantrell and Gerona knew their findings had big implications. Perhaps no area of health care has provoked as much anger in recent years as prescription drugs. The news media is rife with stories of medications priced out of reach or of shortages of crucial drugs, sometimes because producing them is no longer profitable.

Tossing such drugs when they expire is doubly hard. One pharmacist at Newton-Wellesley Hospital outside Boston says the 240-bed facility is able to return some expired drugs for credit, but had to destroy about $200,000 worth last year. A commentary in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings cited similar losses at the nearby Tufts Medical Center. Play that out at hospitals across the country and the tab is significant: about $800 million per year. And that doesn’t include the costs of expired drugs at long-term care pharmacies, retail pharmacies and in consumer medicine cabinets.

After Cantrell and Gerona published their findings in Archives of Internal Medicine in 2012, some readers accused them of being irresponsible and advising patients that it was OK to take expired drugs. Cantrell says they weren’t recommending the use of expired medication, just reviewing the arbitrary way the dates are set.

“Refining our prescription drug dating process could save billions,” he says.

But after a brief burst of attention, the response to their study faded. That raises an even bigger question: If some drugs remain effective well beyond the date on their labels, why hasn’t there been a push to extend their expiration dates?

It turns out that the FDA, the agency that helps set the dates, has long known the shelf life of some drugs can be extended, sometimes by years.

In fact, the federal government has saved a fortune by doing this.

For decades, the federal government has stockpiled massive stashes of medication, antidotes and vaccines in secure locations throughout the country. The drugs are worth tens of billions of dollars and would provide a first line of defense in case of a large-scale emergency.

Maintaining these stockpiles is expensive. The drugs have to be kept secure and at the proper humidity and temperature so they don’t degrade. Luckily, the country has rarely needed to tap into many of the drugs, but this means they often reach their expiration dates. Though the government requires pharmacies to throw away expired drugs, it doesn’t always follow these instructions itself. Instead, for more than 30 years, it has pulled some medicines and tested their quality.

The idea that drugs expire on specified dates goes back at least a half-century, when the FDA began requiring manufacturers to add this information to the label. The time limits allow the agency to ensure medications work safely and effectively for patients. To determine a new drug’s shelf life, its maker zaps it with intense heat and soaks it with moisture to see how it degrades under stress. It also checks how it breaks down over time. The drug company then proposes an expiration date to the FDA, which reviews the data to ensure it supports the date and approves it. Despite the difference in drugs’ makeup, most “expire” after two or three years.

Once a drug is launched, the makers run tests to ensure it continues to be effective up to its labeled expiration date. Since they are not required to check beyond it, most don’t, largely because regulations make it expensive and time-consuming for manufacturers to extend expiration dates, says Yan Wu, an analytical chemist who is part of a focus group at the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists that looks at the long-term stability of drugs. Most companies, she says, would rather sell new drugs and develop additional products.

Various old and expired pharmaceutical bottles in Dr Lee Cantrell’s office at the University of California San Diego Hospital in San Diego, CA on FRiday, July 7, 2017.(Photo by Sandy Huffaker for ProPublica)

Pharmacists and researchers say there is no economic “win” for drug companies to investigate further. They ring up more sales when medications are tossed as “expired” by hospitals, retail pharmacies and consumers despite retaining their safety and effectiveness.

Industry officials say patient safety is their highest priority. Olivia Shopshear, director of science and regulatory advocacy for the drug industry trade group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, says expiration dates are chosen “based on the period of time when any given lot will maintain its identity, potency and purity, which translates into safety for the patient.”

That being said, it’s an open secret among medical professionals that many drugs maintain their ability to combat ailments well after their labels say they don’t. One pharmacist says he sometimes takes home expired over-the-counter medicine from his pharmacy so he and his family can use it.

The federal agencies that stockpile drugs — including the military, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Veterans Affairs — have long realized the savings in revisiting expiration dates.

In 1986, the Air Force, hoping to save on replacement costs, asked the FDA if certain drugs’ expiration dates could be extended. In response, the FDA and Defense Department created the Shelf Life Extension Program.

Each year, drugs from the stockpiles are selected based on their value and pending expiration and analyzed in batches to determine whether their end dates could be safely extended. For several decades, the program has found that the actual shelf life of many drugs is well beyond the original expiration dates.

A 2006 study of 122 drugs tested by the program showed that two-thirds of the expired medications were stable every time a lot was tested. Each of them had their expiration dates extended, on average, by more than four years, according to research published in the Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences.

Some that failed to hold their potency include the common asthma inhalant albuterol, the topical rash spray diphenhydramine, and a local anesthetic made from lidocaine and epinephrine, the study said. But neither Cantrell nor Dr. Cathleen Clancy, associate medical director of National Capital Poison Center, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the George Washington University Medical Center, had heard of anyone being harmed by any expired drugs. Cantrell says there has been no recorded instance of such harm in medical literature.

Marc Young, a pharmacist who helped run the extension program from 2006 to 2009, says it has had a “ridiculous” return on investment. Each year the federal government saved $600 million to $800 million because it did not have to replace expired medication, he says.

An official with the Department of Defense, which maintains about $13.6 billion worth of drugs in its stockpile, says that in 2016 it cost $3.1 million to run the extension program, but it saved the department from replacing $2.1 billion in expired drugs. To put the magnitude of that return on investment into everyday terms: It’s like spending a dollar to save $677.

“We didn’t have any idea that some of the products would be so damn stable — so robustly stable beyond the shelf life,” says Ajaz Hussain, one of the scientists who formerly helped oversee the extension program.

Hussain is now president of the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Technology and Education, an organization of 17 universities that’s working to reduce the cost of pharmaceutical development. He says the high price of drugs and shortages make it time to reexamine drug expiration dates in the commercial market.

“It’s a shame to throw away good drugs,” Hussain says.

Some medical providers have pushed for a changed approach to drug expiration dates — with no success. In 2000, the American Medical Association, foretelling the current prescription drug crisis, adopted a resolution urging action. The shelf life of many drugs, it wrote, seems to be “considerably longer” than their expiration dates, leading to “unnecessary waste, higher pharmaceutical costs, and possibly reduced access to necessary drugs for some patients.”

Citing the federal government’s extension program, the AMA sent letters to the FDA, the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, which sets standards for drugs, and PhRMA asking for a re-examination of expiration dates.

No one remembers the details — just that the effort fell flat.

“Nothing happened, but we tried,” says rheumatologist Roy Altman, now 80, who helped write the AMA report. “I’m glad the subject is being brought up again. I think there’s considerable waste.”

At Newton-Wellesley Hospital, outside Boston, pharmacist David Berkowitz yearns for something to change.

On a recent weekday, Berkowitz sorted through bins and boxes of medication in a back hallway of the hospital’s pharmacy, peering at expiration dates. As the pharmacy’s assistant director, he carefully manages how the facility orders and dispenses drugs to patients. Running a pharmacy is like working in a restaurant because everything is perishable, he says, “but without the free food.”

Federal and state laws prohibit pharmacists from dispensing expired drugs and The Joint Commission, which accredits thousands of health care organizations, requires facilities to remove expired medication from their supply. So at Newton-Wellesley, outdated drugs are shunted to shelves in the back of the pharmacy and marked with a sign that says: “Do Not Dispense.” The piles grow for weeks until they are hauled away by a third-party company that has them destroyed. And then the bins fill again.

“I question the expiration dates on most of these drugs,” Berkowitz says.

One of the plastic boxes is piled with EpiPens — devices that automatically inject epinephrine to treat severe allergic reactions. They run almost $300 each. These are from emergency kits that are rarely used, which means they often expire. Berkowitz counts them, tossing each one with a clatter into a separate container, “… that’s 45, 46, 47 …” He finishes at 50. That’s almost $15,000 in wasted EpiPens alone.

7/27/17 Newton, MA — Pharmacy Technician Nikki Wong, replaces expired medication in drug boxes throughout Newton-Wellesley Hospital, April 27, 2017. Photo by Erik Jacobs for ProPublica

In May, Cantrell and Gerona published a study that examined 40 EpiPens and EpiPen Jrs., a smaller version, that had been expired for between one and 50 months. The devices had been donated by consumers, which meant they could have been stored in conditions that would cause them to break down, like a car’s glove box or a steamy bathroom. The EpiPens also contain liquid medicine, which tends to be less stable than solid medications.

Testing showed 24 of the 40 expired devices contained at least 90 percent of their stated amount of epinephrine, enough to be considered as potent as when they were made. All of them contained at least 80 percent of their labeled concentration of medication. The takeaway? Even EpiPens stored in less than ideal conditions may last longer than their labels say they do, and if there’s no other option, an expired EpiPen may be better than nothing, Cantrell says.

At Newton-Wellesley, Berkowitz keeps a spreadsheet of every outdated drug he throws away. The pharmacy sends what it can back for credit, but it doesn’t come close to replacing what the hospital paid.

Then there’s the added angst of tossing drugs that are in short supply. Berkowitz picks up a box of sodium bicarbonate, which is crucial for heart surgery and to treat certain overdoses. It’s being rationed because there’s so little available. He holds up a purple box of atropine, which gives patients a boost when they have low heart rates. It’s also in short supply. In the federal government’s stockpile, the expiration dates of both drugs have been extended, but they have to be thrown away by Berkowitz and other hospital pharmacists.

The 2006 FDA study of the extension program also said it pushed back the expiration date on lots of mannitol, a diuretic, for an average of five years. Berkowitz has to toss his out. Expired naloxone? The drug reverses narcotic overdoses in an emergency and is currently in wide use in the opioid epidemic. The FDA extended its use-by date for the stockpiled drugs, but Berkowitz has to trash it.

On rare occasions, a pharmaceutical company will extend the expiration dates of its own products because of shortages. That’s what happened in June, when the FDA posted extended expiration dates from Pfizer for batches of its injectable atropine, dextrose, epinephrine and sodium bicarbonate. The agency notice included the lot numbers of the batches being extended and added six months to a year to their expiration dates.

The news sent Berkowitz running to his expired drugs to see if any could be put back into his supply. His team rescued four boxes of the syringes from destruction, including 75 atropine, 15 dextrose, 164 epinephrine and 22 sodium bicarbonate. Total value: $7,500. In a blink, “expired” drugs that were in the trash heap were put back into the pharmacy supply.

Berkowitz says he appreciated Pfizer’s action, but feels it should be standard to make sure drugs that are still effective aren’t thrown away.

“The question is: Should the FDA be doing more stability testing?” Berkowitz says. “Could they come up with a safe and systematic way to cut down on the drugs being wasted in hospitals?”

Four scientists who worked on the FDA extension program told ProPublica something like that could work for drugs stored in hospital pharmacies, where conditions are carefully controlled.

Greg Burel, director of the CDC’s stockpile, says he worries that if drugmakers were forced to extend their expiration dates it could backfire, making it unprofitable to produce certain drugs and thereby reducing access or increasing prices.

The 2015 commentary in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, called “Extending Shelf Life Just Makes Sense,” also suggested that drugmakers could be required to set a preliminary expiration date and then update it after long-term testing. An independent organization could also do testing similar to that done by the FDA extension program, or data from the extension program could be applied to properly stored medications.

ProPublica asked the FDA whether it could expand its extension program, or something like it, to hospital pharmacies, where drugs are stored in stable conditions similar to the national stockpile.

“The Agency does not have a position on the concept you have proposed,” an official wrote back in an email.

Whatever the solution, the drug industry will need to be spurred in order to change, says Hussain, the former FDA scientist. “The FDA will have to take the lead for a solution to emerge,” he says. “We are throwing away products that are certainly stable, and we need to do something about it.”

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Scientists endorse these three strategies to delay dementia

WOLFRATSHAUSEN, GERMANY – NOVEMBER 15: Two female inhabitants of a residential care home for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia patients walk hand-in-hand in the corridor of the residential home on November 15, 2011 in Wolfratshausen, Germany. (Photo by Alexandra Beier/Getty Images)

In a landmark report, scientists have endorsed three strategies for preventing dementia and cognitive decline associated with normal aging — being physically active, engaging in cognitive training and controlling high blood pressure.

This is the first time experts convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine have deemed scientific evidence strong enough to suggest that preventing dementia and age-related cognitive decline might be possible.

Seven years ago, in a separate report issued by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, scientists said they couldn’t recommend any interventions to forestall or slow cognitive deterioration because state-of-the-art science at that time didn’t offer enough support.

This is the first time experts convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine have deemed scientific evidence strong enough to suggest that preventing dementia and age-related cognitive decline might be possible.

Now there’s a considerably larger body of research to draw upon. And while findings are still far from definitive, “we found encouraging evidence that supports the value of several interventions,” said Story Landis, vice chair of the 17-member panel that prepared the report and director emeritus of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

That doesn’t mean the strategies are guaranteed to protect brain health. “You can do everything right and still get dementia in later life,” said Dr. Kenneth Langa, a panel member and professor of internal medicine, gerontology and health management and policy at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Nor does it mean these are the only interventions that offer promise. Managing depression, controlling diabetes and high cholesterol, engaging in social activities, getting adequate sleep, eating a healthful diet, taking disease-modifying treatments for dementia (if and when they become available) and getting enough vitamin B12 and folic acid also appear worthwhile, though more research is needed before those tactics can be formally recommended, the NAS report said.

Addressing lifestyle factors that raise the risk of cognitive impairment could help prevent more than one-third of dementia cases across the globe, according to a separate comprehensive analysis published in The Lancet on Thursday.

The NAS panel proposed that its findings be shared with the public and physicians, but stopped short of proposing a major public health campaign, citing the need for further research.

Here are insights from the report, based on interviews with panel members and outside experts:

Strategies work in some cases, not others
As people age, mental processing becomes slower and memory becomes less reliable — a normal condition known as age-related cognitive decline.

Two of the interventions recommended in the NAS report — cognitive training and physical activity — appear to have the potential to delay age-related cognitive decline. But there’s no evidence that they can prevent dementia or mild cognitive impairment, an intermediate condition that sometimes progresses to dementia.

“Prevention really needs to start in people who don’t show any sign of the disease — probably when people reach their 40s.”

Managing high blood pressure is the only strategy thought to have the potential to prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. But it wasn’t shown to have an impact on age-related cognitive decline.

Once the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s are detected — notably amyloid beta plaques and tau tangles in the brain — some interventions might not be effective, said Dr. Ronald Petersen, a member of the NAS panel and director of the Mayo Clinic’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.

Start early
It’s now known that biological changes associated with Alzheimer’s and related dementias begin a decade or more before any symptoms become evident. So it’s best to make recommended lifestyle changes early and sustain them over time.

“Prevention really needs to start in people who don’t show any sign of the disease — probably when people reach their 40s,” said Jeffrey Keller, director of the Institute for Dementia Research and Prevention at Louisiana State University, who was not involved in the NAS study.

Controlling high blood pressure, a strategy that helps preserve the health of blood vessels in the brain, is most effective if begun in middle age, the NAS report explained. But if you’ve reached age 65 and your blood pressure isn’t well managed, you’re still well advised to bring it under control, Landis said.

The same applies to physical activity: It’s best if you start in middle age, but becoming more active in later life is still good for your health. While it’s not yet known which type of activity is most effective, for what duration and how often it should be pursued for maximum brain benefit, walking briskly for 150 minutes a week or about 20 minutes a day is a good idea, Petersen said.

On cognitive training
Probably the best cognitive training you can get is a good education and ongoing mental stimulation. “There’s growing evidence that the ways in which your brain is challenged all through your life matter,” noted Langa, whose research has documented a decline in dementia rates in high-income countries over the past 25 years.

But the impact of education on brain health is very difficult to quantify. So the NAS panel endorsed cognitive training based largely on a randomized controlled trial known as Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly, which studied several thousand older adults over the course of 10 years.

ACTIVE had certified trainers work with seniors in small group sessions on various cognitive exercises for 10 sessions lasting an hour or more over five to six weeks. Feedback was an essential part of the intervention and booster sessions were offered. At 10 years, there was evidence of a positive effect on seniors’ independence and ability to perform daily tasks.

“The data supporting their efficacy just isn’t there.”

What was responsible for this effect? The training? Social interactions? Feedback? Booster sessions? All or some of the above? It’s not yet clear.

It’s important to note that the panel insisted that commercially sold computer-based brain games can’t be assumed to have the same effect. So far, research about brain games has failed to prove that this type of training improves broad-based cognitive functioning and people’s ability to function independently.

“The data supporting their efficacy just isn’t there,” said Petersen of the Mayo Clinic.

Try several things, not just one
When scientists examine the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease, they find amyloid beta plaques and tangles, but also changes in blood vessels, evidence of microbleeds, and lesions in the brain’s white matter. “It’s mixed dementia, due to multiple factors — not just one thing,” Landis said.

The corollary: Mix it up and try several ways to reduce age-related cognitive decline or dementia, not just one.

“If we think of Alzheimer’s as a multifactorial disease, it makes sense to reduce multiple risk factors simultaneously,” said Rong Zhang, associate professor of neurology and neurotherapeutics at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Zhang is also the principal investigator for a five-year study investigating whether aerobic exercise combined with intensive control of hypertension and cholesterol can help prevent Alzheimer’s. That study, the Risk Reduction for Alzheimer’s Disease trial, is currently enrolling participants at six medical centers.

“The brain is complicated and its response to interventions is complex,” Langa said. “Therefore, the more strategies that you use to try to improve the brain’s health long term, the more likely they’re going to work.”

Don’t bother
The NAS report found no evidence supporting the use of ginkgo biloba and vitamin E, which are widely marketed to people concerned about brain health. And it questioned the value of other supplements, noting that overall dietary patterns appear more important than any single substance.

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