Study points to 6 habits that reduce risk of dementia, slow memory loss

A large study of more than 29,000 older adults has identified six habits associated with a lower risk of dementia and slower memory decline. The study, published in The BMJ, found that eating a balanced diet, exercising the mind and body, interacting regularly with others, and not drinking or smoking were associated with better cognitive outcomes in older adults.

According to The Washington Post, the 10-year study adds substantial evidence to a global body of research suggesting that a healthy lifestyle can help the brain age better. It also gives hope to people who are more prone to memory loss because they carry the APOE4 gene, the strongest risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.

While memory naturally declines as people age, and may be an early warning sign of dementia, the researchers found that it “may be reversed or become stable sooner than transitioning into a pathological state.” The BMJ study was conducted in China between 2009 and 2019, the Post says. Researchers gave 29,000 people age 60 or older cognitive tests and then tracked their progress or decline over time. They performed basic memory tests and tests for the APOE4 gene at the start of their study and sorted the participants into three groups – favorable, intermediate and unfavorable – according to six modifiable lifestyle factors.

These six factors include:

Exercise. Do at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week.

Power supply. Following a diet that regularly includes at least seven of the 12 foods (fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, dairy products, salt, oil eggs, cereals, legumes, nuts, and tea).

Alcohol. Don’t drink or drank occasionally.

To smoke. Quit smoking or never smoked.

Cognitive activity. Train the brain at least twice a week, for example by reading and playing cards.

Social contact. Interact with others at least twice a week, such as attending community gatherings or visiting friends or relatives.

The researchers found that people in the favorable group, who had four to six healthy factors, and those in the average group, who had two to three healthy factors, had slower memory decline over time than people with unfavorable lifestyles, with zero to one healthy factor.

The more healthy factors a person practiced, the more likely he or she would reduce their risk of developing mild cognitive impairment and dementia. This association even turned out to be true for people who had the APOE4 gene, the Post says.

“These results provide an optimistic outlook, as they suggest that while genetic risk cannot be modified, a combination of healthier lifestyle factors is associated with slower memory decline, regardless of genetic risk,” the study authors wrote. While the BMJ study found that a balanced diet played the most protective role in reducing cognitive decline, other studies have shown that mental and physical exercise are more important in preventing mental decline as we age. But the encouraging message is that it’s never too late to improve your brain health.

“The overall message of the study is positive,” said Snorri Bjorn Rafnsson, an associate professor of Aging and Dementia at the Geller Institute of Aging and Memory at the University of West London. “Namely, that cognitive function, and especially memory function, can be positively influenced in later life by regularly and often participating in various health-related activities.”

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