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Recipe for Brain Health: Diet, Exercise, Brain Training

Enjoying some leisurely exerciseA large new study has confirmed what doctors have suspected for years: that embracing a healthy lifestyle can slow the rate of cognitive aging in older adults at risk of dementia. The study, published this week in the Lancet, found that a combination of a healthy diet, strength training, aerobic exercise, brain games and controlling blood pressure and weight slows mental decline in older people.

For this study,  1,260 Finnish men and women between the ages of 60 and 77 who were at high risk for developing dementia were divided into two groups. Half of the people participated in an intensive program that included exercise, nutritional counseling and brain training exercises, in addition to monitoring blood pressure and weight. The other half received regular health advice. After two years, the researchers measured the mental fitness of study subjects.

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In the first randomized controlled trial of its kind, researchers found scores on a standard brain function test were 25 percent higher in the test group than in the control group. Executive functioning — the brain’s ability to organize thoughts — was 83 percent higher in the intervention group, and mental processing speed was an impressive 150 percent higher. Interestingly, initial analysis did not find an improvement in memory.

“This is the first study to really show that lifestyle changes may affect the memory function,” lead author Miia Kivipelto of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute said over the phone from Stockholm. She added that she suspects the combination of interventions was critical: “It’s not enough to do one of these things.” The researchers presented preliminary results of the study last summer at the Alzheimer’s Association conference in Denmark.

“It’s a terrific study in terms of sample size and interventions,” said Murali Doraiswamy, M.D., director of the neurocognitive disorders program at the Duke University School of Medicine. He added, however, that the study period was too short to to test whether the effects truly translate into lower risk for Alzheimer’s disease and that the “lack of effects on memory was a disappointment.”

Kivipelto said the next step will be to develop a model based on these findings that can be used “to help society make healthy choices.” The researchers also plan to follow the men and women in the study for seven years to see which ones develop Alzheimer’s disease.

The study’s brain-healthy program:

Watch neurologist Majid Fotuhi and Lynn Mento, who leads the AARP Staying Sharp membership option, on a recent
Today Show segment talk about how to support brain health and AARP’s 2014 Brain Health Research Study.

Photo: kupicoo/iStock

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