A large study of more than 29,000 older adults has identified six habits that are linked with a lower risk of dementia and a slower rate of memory decline. The study, published in The BMJ, found that eating a balanced diet, exercising the mind and body, engaging in regular contact with others, and not drinking or smoking were associated with better cognitive outcomes in older adults.
According to The Washington Post, the decade-long study adds substantial evidence to a global body of research that suggests a healthy lifestyle may help brains age better. It also gives hope to people who are more susceptible to memory decline because they carry the APOE4 gene, the strongest risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.
While memory naturally declines as people age, and can be an early warning sign of dementia, the researchers found that it “can be reversed or become stable rather than progress to a pathological state.” The BMJ study was conducted in China between 2009 and 2019, says the Post. Researchers gave 29,000 people aged 60 or over cognitive tests and then tracked their progress or decline over time. They conducted baseline memory tests as well as tests for the APOE4 gene at the start of their study and sorted the participants into three groups — favorable, average, and unfavorable — according to six modifiable lifestyle factors.
These six factors included:
• Physical exercise. Doing at least 150 minutes of moderate, or 75 minutes of vigorous, activity each week.
• Nutrition. Eating a diet that regularly contains at least seven of 12 food items (fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, dairy products, salt, oil eggs, cereals, legumes, nuts, and tea).
• Alcohol. Don’t drink or drank occasionally.
• Smoking. Stopped smoking or never smoked.
• Cognitive activity. Exercising the brain at least twice a week by reading and playing cards, for example.
• Social contact. Engaging with others at least twice a week by attending community meetings or visiting with friends or relatives, for example.
The researchers found that people in the favorable group, who had four to six healthy factors, and those in the average group, who had two to three healthy factors, had a slower rate of memory decline over time than those with unfavorable lifestyles, with zero to one healthy factor.
The more healthy factors a person practiced, the more likely he or she was to reduce their risk of developing mild cognitive impairment and dementia. This association proved true even for people who had the APOE4 gene, says the Post.
“These results provide an optimistic outlook, as they suggest that although genetic risk is not modifiable, a combination of more healthy lifestyle factors is associated with a slower rate of memory decline, regardless of the genetic risk,” wrote the study authors. While The BMJ study found that a balanced diet played the most protective role in reducing cognitive decline, other studies have found that mental and physical exercise are more important to stave off mental decline as we age. But the encouraging message is that it is never too late to improve your brain health.
“The overall message from the study is a positive one,” said Snorri Bjorn Rafnsson, associate professor of Ageing and Dementia in the Geller Institute of Ageing and Memory at the University of West London. “Namely, that cognitive function, and especially memory function, in later life may be positively influenced by regularly and frequently engaging in different health-related activities.”
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