Six healthy lifestyle habits lead to lower dementia risk and memory decline

These findings shed new light on the powerful impact of healthy living on cognitive function in older individuals.

These findings shed new light on the powerful impact of healthy living on cognitive function in older individuals. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

In a major study from Capital Medical University involving over 29,000 older adults, researchers have pinpointed six lifestyle habits that are associated with a reduced risk of dementia and a slower rate of memory decline.

These findings, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), shed new light on the powerful impact of healthy living on cognitive function in older individuals.

The study, conducted in China over a decade from 2009 to 2019, represents a significant contribution to the ongoing global research on dementia and cognitive decline. The researchers conducted memory tests and genetic screenings, focusing on the APOEε4 gene, which is a major risk factor for Alzheimer's disease.

Visual abstract of the study. (CREDIT: The BMJ)

Participants were also asked about their daily habits and were categorized into three groups based on their lifestyles: favorable, average, and unfavorable.

The six key lifestyle factors examined in the study were:

  • Physical exercise: Engaging in at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week.

  • Diet: Consuming appropriate daily amounts of at least seven out of 12 food items, including fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, dairy products, salt, oil, eggs, cereals, legumes, nuts, and tea.

  • Alcohol: Abstaining from alcohol consumption or drinking only occasionally.

  • Smoking: Never having smoked or being a former smoker.

  • Cognitive activity: Exercising the brain at least twice a week through activities such as reading or playing cards.

  • Social contact: Engaging with others at least twice a week, whether by attending community meetings or visiting friends and relatives.

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Over the course of the study, researchers discovered a compelling connection between these lifestyle factors and cognitive health.

Individuals in the favorable group, characterized by adopting four to six of these healthy habits, experienced a significantly slower rate of memory decline compared to those with unfavorable lifestyles (zero to one healthy factor).

Moreover, those following favorable lifestyles were less likely to progress to mild cognitive impairment or dementia.

One of the most promising findings of the study is that these positive effects were not limited to individuals without genetic risk factors. Even those carrying the APOEε4 gene, which increases the risk of Alzheimer's disease, benefited from embracing a healthier lifestyle. This offers hope to millions worldwide who may carry this genetic risk marker.

Memory decline is a natural part of aging, but for some, it can be an early indicator of dementia. The study emphasizes that this decline can be reversed or stabilized through lifestyle changes rather than progressing to a pathological state.

In the words of the study authors, the results provide an "optimistic outlook" and underscore that a combination of healthy lifestyle factors can help preserve memory and safeguard against dementia.

Longitudinal change in memory among favorable, average, and unfavorable groups in the cognitively normal population. (top panel) estimated change in memory function over 10 years, by group. Dots represent individuals’ estimated composite z scores for avlt. (bottom panel) Mean composite avlt z scores of all groups. avlt=auditory verbal learning test. (CREDIT: The BMJ)

While the study's results align with the scientific consensus on the link between lifestyle and cognitive function in aging, it also highlights the importance of a balanced diet. Contrary to some previous studies, which emphasized physical and mental exercise, this research found that a well-rounded diet had the most significant impact on reducing memory decline.

However, it's essential to note that the study had limitations, such as potential inaccuracies in self-reported health behaviors. Additionally, the participants may have been more inclined to lead healthier lives from the outset.

Longitudinal change in memory among favorable, average, and unfavorable groups in the aPOe ε4 stratified population. Dots in the left panels represent individuals’ estimated composite avlt z scores. avlt=auditory verbal learning test; aPOe=apolipoprotein e. (CREDIT: The BMJ)

Carol Brayne, a professor of public health medicine at the University of Cambridge, emphasized the study's significance, particularly because it was conducted in China, expanding our understanding beyond western high-income countries.

Overall, experts agree that the study's message is a positive one: engaging in various health-related activities, even in later life, can positively influence cognitive function and memory. These findings offer renewed hope for individuals seeking ways to protect their brain health and age gracefully.

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Joseph Shavit
Joseph ShavitSpace, Technology and Medical News Writer
Joseph Shavit is the head science news writer with a passion for communicating complex scientific discoveries to a broad audience. With a strong background in both science, business, product management, media leadership and entrepreneurship, Joseph possesses the unique ability to bridge the gap between business and technology, making intricate scientific concepts accessible and engaging to readers of all backgrounds.