Here’s a to-do list for preventing dementia, new research suggests: Ditch red meat, take a brisk walk to the grocery store, do the Sunday crossword and stick to one glass of wine at dinner.
A study presented Sunday at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Los Angeles found that combining five lifestyle habits – including eating healthier, exercising regularly and refraining from smoking – can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by 60 per cent. A separate study showed that lifestyle choices can lower risk even for those who are genetically prelifestyle disposed to the disease.
The report, compiled by the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, tracked 2765 individuals over about a decade. All participants were older adults enrolled in either the Chicago Health and Aging Project (CHAP) or the Rush Memory and Aging Project (MAP), both federally funded, long-term observational studies that examine mental decline among aging Chicago residents.
Over the last decade, studies have increasingly pointed to controllable lifestyle factors as critical components for reducing the risk of cognitive decline. Researchers say that, as with heart disease, combating dementia will probably require a “cocktail” approach combining drugs and lifestyle changes. And as recent efforts to develop a cure or more effective drug treatments for dementia have proven disappointing, the fact that people can exert some control in preventing the disease through their own choices is encouraging news, they say.
While the new study’s authors expected to see that leading a healthier life decreases the chance of dementia, they were floored by the “magnitude of the effect,” said Klodian Dhana, a Rush University professor and co-author.
“This demonstrates the potential of lifestyle behaviours to reduce risk as we age,” said Heather Snyder, senior director of medical and scientific operations at the Alzheimer’s Association. “The fact that four or five lifestyle habits put together can have that kind of benefit for your brain is incredibly powerful.”
The Rush team assessed study participants’ lifestyles on five metrics: their diet, their exercise regimen, whether or not they smoked, their alcohol consumption and their “engagement in cognitive stimulation activities,” Dhana said. The researchers then scored each factor, assigning participants a “1” if their behaviour was healthy in that category and a “0” if it was unhealthy.
Individuals who ate a “high-quality diet” of mostly vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, seafood, poultry and olive oil – while avoiding red meats, butter, cheese, pastries, sweets and fried food – earned 1s. This was also true for anyone who exercised at least 150 minutes a week, whether by biking, walking, swimming, gardening or doing yard work.
People who did not smoke, limited themselves to one glass of wine a day, and regularly – two or three times a week – engaged in mentally stimulating activities like reading the newspaper, visiting the library or playing games such as chess and checkers also earned 1s.