The 35 year study of 2,235 men aged 45-59 at the start of the study, which was conducted by scientists at Cardiff University, Wales, UK, identified the following five key lifestyle factors that can cut dementia risk by as much as two thirds:
- taking regular exercise, which is defined as 30 minutes, 5 days a week and enough to break a sweat
- not smoking
- maintaining a healthy body weight (using normal BMI as an indicator)
- a healthy diet, which is defined as eating five or more servings of fruit and vegetables a day and getting less than 30% of total calories from fat
- a low alcohol intake, which is defined as three units of alcohol per day or less
One factor stood out above the rest for its power to cut health risks, though: exercise.
The researchers found that people who consistently followed four out of five or all five of the behaviors cut their risk of dementia and cognitive decline significantly and by as much as 60%. What’s more, when compared to people who followed none of the above recommendations, they also cut their risk of a number of other diseases including diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
“The size of reduction in the instance of disease owing to these simple healthy steps has really amazed us and is of enormous importance in an aging population,” Principle Investigator Professor Peter Elwood from Cardiff University’s School of Medicine is quoted as saying. “What the research shows is that following a healthy lifestyle confers surprisingly large benefits to health — healthy behaviours have a far more beneficial effect than any medical treatment or preventative procedure.”
However, Professor Elwood has warned that despite the fact none of the above are particularly new recommendations, few people are choosing to follow all five of the healthy behaviors.
“Taking up and following a healthy lifestyle is however the responsibility of the individual him or herself. Sadly, the evidence from this study shows that very few people follow a fully healthy lifestyle. Furthermore, our findings reveal that while the number of people who smoke has gone down since the study started, the number of people leading a fully healthy lifestyle has not changed.”
There were a few surprises in the study. Chief among them was that the only factor that meaningfully impacted cancer rates wasn’t exercise or a healthy diet. It was not smoking. That might be a bit of a downer for people who don’t smoke and wanted to cut their cancer risk further. Other studies have shown that exercise and healthy eating can contribute to reducing certain cancer rates, so this finding does not necessarily mean that such efforts are meaningless.
What the study does highlight is the importance of quitting smoking and the dramatic effect that it may have.
This research does have a number of limitations as it didn’t account for socioeconomic status or marital status. These are limitations the study’s authors recognize and accept, but they say their findings still have merit and contribute to the consensus of medical advice that supports the healthy lifestyle factors they have identified.
The study comes as UK Prime Minister David Cameron and leaders of the G8 states pledge a war on dementia. Worldwide, dementia affects around 44 million people, and that figure is set to double in the next 40 years. That’s unless we can find medication to permanently stop dementia in its tracks. Currently, only a handful of drugs exist on the market and all of them only slow the onset of the disease.
David Cameron wants a dementia cure by 2025. That’s a lofty goal, but the Prime Minister appears ready to put his money where his mouth is, having announced the UK will double its funding for dementia research to 132 million by 2025.
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