A New Study Suggests Lifestyle Changes Can Offset Cognitive Decline Related To Aging

A new study of older adults shows how making some lifestyle changes such as changing diet and increasing physical activity can lower the risk of dementia, even if the person already has been diagnosed with and is experiencing cognitive decline.

The term dementia describes a collection of disorders that are characterized by difficulties with cognition, memory, and reasoning. Alzheimer’s is the most recognized and common type of cognitive decline.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at least 5 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s and related dementias. As our population ages, experts expect this number to grow significantly.

Although the precise biological cause of Alzheimer’s is still not known by scientists, some lifestyle factors that have been studied have been shown to increase a person’s risk of developing one of the disorders related to dementia. These factors include smoking, alcohol consumption, poor diet, and a lack of physical activity. One study has estimated that up to 50% of all Alzheimer’s cases in the world may be linked to these lifestyle factors.

Results from the study below published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society suggest that changing these lifestyle factors may help to improve cognitive processing in older adults who may be experiencing cognitive issues that commonly precede dementia.

The study included 119 people 65 or over who were suffering from either subjective cognitive decline (SCD), which is a self-reported condition of confusion or memory loss, or mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which is a clinically diagnosed form of cognitive decline. Doctors consider both conditions as early signs of dementia. However, not everybody with SCD or MCI goes on to develop dementia.

The researchers separated the study group into two segments. They created an active control group and an intervention group for 8 weeks. The control group was plied with online information related to dementia and lifestyle risk factors, Mediterranean diet, physical activity, and cognitive engagement. Another 2020 study has shown that the Mediterranean diet, exercise, and cognitive engagement can slow cognitive impairment. Participants were not required to implement this information into their own lifestyles.

The intervention group completed the same online training and were encouraged to participate in practical activities, including meeting with a dietitian and exercise physiologist and completing brain training exercises.

The study, which is part of the Body, Brain, Life for Cognitive Decline (BBL-CD) trial, is hoping to learn more about the connection between diet and activity levels and reducing the risk of dementia in people who are beginning to show cognitive decline.

By the end of the study, the intervention group’s participation levels and cognition levels were significantly higher than that of the control group. 

Over the 6 months of follow-up data, investigators noted that the people in the intervention group were able to improve their lifestyle and had higher cognition scores than those in the control group. The results suggest that lifestyle-based changes may help stem cognitive decline thus reducing a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s. However, the evidence suggests that individuals need to maintain these dietary and activity changes to see the continued benefit.

Ultimately, the study is quite hopeful. It indicates that those already experiencing cognitive decline can make some reasonable, cost-effective lifestyle changes and reduce their risk of developing dementia, which is especially promising.

“We’ve known for some time that lifestyle changes such as these can reduce dementia risk in the general population. What this study adds is that with the right intervention, people experiencing cognitive decline may retain sufficient neuroplasticity for their brain to ‘bounce back’ from decline,” said lead author Mitchell McMaster, a Ph.D. student at The Australian National University.

Dr. Mark L. Meyer received his M.D. from the Yale University School of Medicine and his J.D. from Yale Law School. He has a private cardiology practice in Manhattan.

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