A 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.
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:
- Nutritional counseling. Nutritionists counseled participants to follow the Finnish Nutritional Recommendations that include plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole-grain cereals and low-fat milk, use of margarine and rapeseed oil (similar to canola oil) instead of butter, and fish at least twice a week.
- Strength training. Trainers worked with participants at a gym one to three times a week to train main muscle groups including abdominal, lower and upper back, arms and legs.
- Aerobic training. Participants chose exercises on their own — i.e., swimming, running, cycling, skiing, dancing — and/or joined group exercise classes two to five times a week. Kivipelto said it was important that participants chose exercise they enjoyed — dancing was a favorite.
- Brain training. Psychologists led group sessions counseling on age-related memory changes, and participants also did individual computer-based training designed by the researchers.
- Social activity. This was stimulated through multiple group meetings and sessions.
- Heart health. Nurses measured blood pressure, weight, BMI, and hip and waist circumference. They did not prescribe medication but strongly recommended that study participants contact their physicians if medication was warranted.
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.
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