Healthy lifestyle in old age linked to slower memory and thinking decline

Research published today (Wednesday 25 January) in The BMJ found that people in their 60s who lead a healthier lifestyle experience slower cognitive decline.

The study of people involved taking part in the China Cognition and Aging Study, a nationwide study of dementia in China. Researchers analyzed data from 29072 people who were 60 or older at the start of the research and who did not have existing memory and thinking problems.

Participants took a test for a key Alzheimer’s risk gene (called APOE4) and, at five points over the decade long study, completed a questionnaire about their lifestyle and undertook a memory assessment.

The research focused on six healthy lifestyle factors:

  • A healthy diet (a recommended intake of at least 7 of 12 foods including fruits, vegetables, fish, cereals, legumes and nuts)).
  • Regular physical exercise (at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or at least 75 minutes of vigorous intensity, per week).
  • Active social contact (at least twice per week).
  • Cognitive activity (such as writing, reading, or mentally challenging games at least twice per week).
  • Not smoking.
  • Never drink alcohol.

They found that people who adopted at least four of these healthy habits experienced the slowest cognitive decline. Those who only had only one or none of these healthy habits had the fastest decline. The relationship between healthy lifestyle and cognitive decline was similar for people who tested positive for the Alzheimer’s risk gene.

Dr Susan Mitchell, Head of Policy at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:
“This research adds to the evidence that a healthy lifestyle can help support memory and thinking skills as we age. The researchers focused on six lifestyle factors and found that people with healthy habits in at least four of these areas experienced the slowest cognitive decline while those who had healthy habits in one or none of these areas experienced the fastest decline.

“While our genetics play an important part in the health of our brains as we age, this research found a link between healthy lifestyle and slower cognitive decline even in participants with a key Alzheimer’s risk gene.

“This was a well-conducted study that followed people over a long period of time, but it only looked at lifestyle in later life and relied on participants accurately reporting their own lifestyle habits. The weight of the existing evidence suggests that it’s not just older people who can take action to support a healthy brain. Factors across our lifespan can influence the health of our brains so it’s never too early or too late to think about adopting healthy habits. This study further highlights the importance of including brain health in the strategy announced this week by the Secretary of State for Health to address prevention for six major conditions including dementia.

“There is no sure-fire way to prevent dementia – nobody brings it on themselves or is ever to blame for a disease like Alzheimer’s – the best we can do is improve our chances of living longer with better cognitive health.

“Alzheimer’s Research UK’s Think Brain Health Check-in can provide targeted, evidence-based information about dementia risk reduction based on an individual’s lifestyle and health. People can find out more at www.alzheimersresearchuk.org/brain-health/check-in”

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