Healthy Lifestyle Habits May Lower the Risk for Developing Dementia


Journal of the American Geriatrics Society Research Summary

Can your eating habits and physical and mental activity lower your risk for developing dementia as you age? Obviously, it is important to learn all we can about how health habits affect the risks for developing dementia, a debilitating decline in memory and other mental abilities. Experts say that the number of people with dementia worldwide is expected to rise to 82 million by 2030 and to over 152 million by 2050.

A team of researchers designed a study to learn more about whether adopting healthier lifestyle habits can help prevent or slow the onset of dementia. Their study was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

The researchers suggest that prevention strategies should focus on lowering dementia risk for people who are starting to experience cognitive decline, specifically subjective cognitive decline (SCD) and mild cognitive impairment (MCI).

Experiencing cognitive decline means you are having episodes of memory loss or confusion that are getting worse or becoming more frequent. Cognitive decline can lessen your ability to perform everyday activities, such as taking medication, bathing, cooking and cleaning. It is considered one of the earliest noticeable symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias. The key difference between SCD and MCI is that people with SCD report cognitive problems in daily life but test at normal levels on cognitive tests. Meanwhile, people with MCI test at levels below normal, but not at the levels you would expect to see in dementia. Both conditions have an increased risk of progressing to dementia in the future.

Up until now, the research examining whether improving lifestyle habits can help people with SCD has been scarce. In fact, more research has been conducted on people with MCI than those with SCD.

The authors of this new study had a theory: giving individualized attention to older adults experiencing cognitive decline can help them make meaningful lifestyle changes that may delay the development of dementia.

The aim of their eight-week long study was to evaluate the efficacy of a program called “Body Brain Life for Cognitive Decline (BBL-CD).” This program seeks to reduce the overall lifestyle risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, and to prevent further cognitive decline.

Participants were over the age of 65 years from the Canberra region of Australia. Requirements for participation included: owning a computer with internet access; having sufficient English skills; being willing to make lifestyle changes to improve their health,; and having a diagnosis of MCI or reporting experiencing SCD.

There were two study groups. An active control group completed four online information sessions designed to reduce dementia risk. The sessions covered dementia education and lifestyle risk, the Mediterranean diet, physical activity, and engagement in mental activities. Following each session, participants were given a week with no education to allow them to include the information into their lifestyle on their own.

The intervention group completed the same online educational sessions, but in the weeks between the sessions, the group met with a dietitian and exercise physiologist and completed “brain training.” These aspects of the program were designed to help the participants incorporate the information from the sessions into their lifestyle.

Participants had an initial one-hour appointment with a dietitian in week three and two follow-up 30-minute appointments in weeks 10 and 21, to assist them with following a Mediterranean-style diet. They also had a one-hour appointment with an exercise physiologist in week 7 to create a personalized exercise plan, and two follow-up 30-minute appointments in weeks 10 and 21 to adapt the plan as required. Finally, they completed two hours a week of online brain training, starting in week 5, using the Brain HQ platform.

At the start of the study, the 119 participants were around 73 years old. They had about 13 years of education, and 61 percent were women. Three participants had a diagnosis of MCI and all other participants met the criteria for SCD. At the final six-month follow-up, 48 participants remained in each group of the study.

The researchers concluded that the intervention group who received the additional support significantly improved their lifestyle and their cognition compared to the control group. The results suggest that a prevention program like the one used in the study could slow the progression of disease.

According to the researchers, their results could mean that older adults in the early stages of cognitive decline could improve their ability to remember, think, and make decisions, at least in the short term. They said that their results warrant a larger, longer study to test whether longer-term improvements in lifestyle and cognition can be maintained and whether these improvements actually decrease the incidence of dementia.

This summary is from “Lifestyle risk factors and cognitive outcomes from the multidomain dementia risk reduction randomised controlled trial, Body Brain Life for Cognitive Decline (BBL-CD).” It appears online ahead of print in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. The study authors are Mitchell McMaster, Psych. Hons.; Sarang Kim, PhD; Linda Clare, ScD; Susan J. Torres, PhD; Nicolas Cherbuin, PhD; Catherine D’Este, PhD; and Kaarin J. Anstey, PhD.