By
updated 11/16/2012 9:15:51 AM ET 2012-11-16T14:15:51

Maybe you’ve seen the recent headlines: Can’t chew? You could turn crazy! That’s what a new study in the Journal of American Geriatrics found: Your ability to chew might predict your risk for dementia. But don’t believe the headlines—those conclusions are overblown.

  1. Don't miss these Health stories
    1. Splash News
      More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?

      Rates of women who are opting for preventive mastectomies, such as Angeline Jolie, have increased by an estimated 50 percent in recent years, experts say. But many doctors are puzzled because the operation doesn't carry a 100 percent guarantee, it's major surgery -- and women have other options, from a once-a-day pill to careful monitoring.

    2. Larry Page's damaged vocal cords: Treatment comes with trade-offs
    3. Report questioning salt guidelines riles heart experts
    4. CDC: 2012 was deadliest year for West Nile in US
    5. What stresses moms most? Themselves, survey says

First, the study: Researchers asked 557 people questions about their dental health (including how easy they found it to chew on apples and bread) and administered a questionnaire to screen for cognitive impairment. Then they found that subjects who reported trouble chewing—regardless of their overall dental health—were more than twice as likely to suffer from impaired cognitive function as those who reported no trouble.

But here’s the problem: The researchers don’t know if mental decline leads to poor dental care and less bite force, if trouble chewing impacts the brain, or if it’s simply just a random correlation.

So while chewing doesn’t make the cut, there are other small signs that can signal big problems when it comes to your brain, says Andrew Sills, M.D., associate professor of neurological surgery at Vanderbilt Medical Center. Beware of these three signs that could point to a faulty noggin.

1. You can't find your keys -- and everyone else can
The problem with self-checking for signs of decline is that you often focus on the wrong things, says Dr. Sills. For instance, you worry about misplacing the car keys when that’s perfectly normal. Brain systems like the hippocampus—crucial for memory—age faster than other parts of your brain. If you’re worried about your memory, compare yourself to others your age. Don’t remember where you parked, but everyone else is walking to their cars? It could be more than normal aging, says H. Branch Coslett, M.D., professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. But if you and your friends your age all have trouble remembering where you parked, don’t worry—you’re just getting older.

2. You feel numb
Make sure you know the warning signs of an impending stroke—they can appear as early as seven days before a major attack, according to a recent study in the journal Neurology. If you experience sudden numbness, memory loss, or difficulty walking in bouts lasting less than five minutes, write down when your symptoms started and head to the doc, pronto. You might be suffering from a mini-stroke—a minor stroke without long-lasting neurological effects that can lead to a more serious stroke, Dr. Sills says. The good news: Receive proper treatment now and you’ll likely avoid having a follow-up, life-threatening stroke, says Dr. Sills.

3. You get weird headaches
Brain aneurysms—blood-filled-bulges that form in the walls of your blood vessels—are often, but not always, fatal. And contrary to popular perception, you can spot them coming, Dr. Sills says. In fact, over the last three decades, survival rates have increased nearly 20 percent, per a 2009 study in The Lancet. So what are the signs? If you experience a sudden, splitting headache with neck pain that feels somewhat like sunburn, seek immediate help, says Dr. Sills. But don’t panic if you’re prone to migraines; over 99 percent of headaches don’t predict a problem, Dr. Sills says. Look out for new patterns, like an onset of painful, reoccurring headaches when you’re not prone to them. (What if you could ease your pain without meds?

Additional reporting by Cassie Shortsleeve

If you liked this story, then you’ll love these:

How Stress Shrinks Your Brain5 New Brain Foods7 Steps to Reduce Stroke Risk

5 New Brain Foods

7 Steps to Reduce Stroke Risk

More men's health news:

Forget Obama's gray hair -- he'll probably live longer than you

Too tough to get sick? Why men think they're bulletproof

Dude, if you can't see your junk, you're too fat. Crude test may help

© 2012 Rodale Inc. All rights reserved.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,