While researchers have long known there is a link between dementia and factors such as social isolation and obesity, the size and scope of the new study adds substantial evidence to a global body of research that suggest that a healthy lifestyle can help the brain age better.
It also suggests that the effects of a healthy lifestyle are beneficial even for people genetically more susceptible to memory decline – a “very hopeful” finding for the millions of individuals worldwide who carry the APOEε4 gene. , a major risk factor. for Alzheimer’s disease, said Eef Hogervorst, chair of biological psychology at Loughborough University, who was not involved in the study.
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memory naturally gradually decreases with age. Some older adults may develop dementia, an umbrella term that can include Alzheimer’s disease and generally describes a deterioration in cognitive function that goes beyond the normal effects of aging. But for many, “memory loss can simply be senescent forgetting,” the BMJ study authors write – like forgetting the name of that TV show you used to love, or that pesky fact you wanted to research.
Memory loss is no less damaging because it is progressive, and age-related memory decline can in some cases be an early symptom of dementia. But the good news, say the researchers, is that it “can be reversed or become stable rather than progressing to a diseased state.”
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The BMJ study was conducted in China between 2009 and 2019. Researchers tested more than 29,000 people aged 60 and over, then tracked their progression or decline over time – which the this is called a population-based cohort study. Although more than 10,500 participants dropped out of the study over the next decade — some participants died or stopped participating — the researchers still used the data collected from these people in their analysis.
At the start of the study, the researchers performed basic memory tests as well as tests for the APOE gene. They also asked participants about their daily habits. Participants were categorized into one of three groups – favorable, average and unfavorable – based on their lifestyle.
The six modifiable lifestyle factors the researchers focused on included:
- Physical exercise: Do at least 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week.
- Food: Eat appropriate daily amounts of at least seven of 12 foods (fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, dairy, salt, oil, eggs, grains, legumes, nuts, and tea).
- Alcohol: never drank or drank occasionally.
- Smoking: Have never smoked or be a former smoker.
- Cognitive activity: Exercise the brain at least twice a week (by reading and playing cards or mah-jongg, for example).
- Social Contact: Engaging with others at least twice a week (by attending community meetings or visiting friends or relatives, for example).
During the study, researchers found that people in the the favorable group (four to six healthy factors) and the average group (two to three) had a slower rate of memory decline over time than people with unfavorable lifestyles (zero to one healthy factor).
People with supportive lifestyles that include at least four healthy habits were also less likely to progress to mild cognitive impairment and dementia.
The results show that “the more the better,” Hogervorst says — in other words, the more healthy lifestyle factors you can combine, the better your chances of preserving your memory and avoiding Madness.
Notably, this was true even for people who wore the APOE gene associated with a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
“These results offer an optimistic outlook, as they suggest that although genetic risk is not modifiable, a combination of healthier lifestyle factors is associated with a slower rate of memory decline, regardless of genetic risk,” the study authors wrote.
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The study stands out for its size and follow-up over time, and because it was conducted in China, whereas “most publications are based on Western high-income countries”, Carol Brayne, professor of medicine public health at the University of Cambridge. who researches the elderly and dementia, said in an email.
However, the study authors acknowledge several limitations, including that people’s reports of health-related behaviors may not be entirely accurate and that people who participated in the study were more likely to conduct a healthy life initially.
Some of the study’s findings differ from results of other large studies conducted in the United States and Europe, Hogervorst says. For example, the BMJ study found that the lifestyle factor with the greatest effect on reducing memory decline was a balanced diet. Other studies have suggested that diet matters less in old age than physical and mental exercise, Hogervorst says.
Yet his findings align with the broad scientific consensus that there is a link between our lifestyle and our cognitive function as we age – and perhaps more importantly, suggest that there may not be never be too late to improve your brain health.
“The overall message from the study is positive,” Snorri B. Rafnsson, associate professor of aging and dementia at the University of West London, said in an email. “Namely, this cognitive function, and in particular memory function, later in life can be positively influenced by regular and frequent participation in different health-related activities.”
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