The notion of being able to prevent or minimize cognitive decline as we age by engaging in healthy lifestyle behaviors—exercising, eating right, staying mentally active—is both alluring and highly-debated. We want to believe there’s something we can do to defend against the specter of Alzheimer’s and other forms of irreversible dementia, but the scientific evidence behind such arguments has lacked the strength to placate the minds of many skeptics.
Now, the results of a study presented this week at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference lend what is considered some of the strongest clout to the claim that leading a healthy lifestyle can help guard against certain kinds of cognitive functioning issues. Led by Miia Kivipelto, M.D., Ph.D., a professor at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, researchers split more than 1,200 aging adults with risk factors for cognitive decline into two groups. One group was given generic health information and guidance from their doctors, while the other group received specific strategies targeted at optimizing their physical wellness, nutritional health, social engagement and cognitive fitness.
The groups stuck with their respective regimens for two years, undergoing regular cognitive screening tests throughout. When the participants were subjected to the mental evaluations, those who took advantage of the targeted lifestyle interventions had memories that were not only faster, but more accurate. These individuals were also better at performing complex tasks, such as planning and problem-solving, than those who received regular guidance from their health care professionals.
“These results highlight the value of addressing multiple risk factors in improving performance in several cognitive domains,” says Kivipelto, whose team is planning a longer follow-up study to cement their findings. It’s important to note that the participants in these investigations had certain risk factors related to poor health habits and less-than-optimal vascular health, which study authors say creates “a window of opportunity for prevention.”
Simple lifestyle practices yield big benefits
Let’s be clear—there’s still no way to completely prevent, cure or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Still, this study lends strength to the argument that the long-term benefits of adopting healthy lifestyle behaviors should include better brain functioning, even as we age.
“We can’t do much about the real effects of aging,” says Larry Matson, co-author of Live Young, think Young, Be Young…at Any Age. “But aging is really a minor factor. Chronic disease, on the other hand, is a major factor.” Disuse of body and mind is the primary culprit behind accelerated aging, he argues.
Making appropriate use of our minds and bodies by sitting less, moving more, eating better and strengthening our relationships with family and friends are all essential to aging well. “We adapt daily to how we use our body and mind. As we get older we just don’t realize how much less we do,” says Matson.
The first step is to become aware of the unhealthy habits you’ve unconsciously adopted, then take simple steps to improve them. Matson says going for a daily 30-minute walk is perhaps one of the most important physical activities a sedentary person can do to minimize the effects of aging. Other relatively simple anti-aging interventions include forgoing your usual reality TV show in favor of cracking the spine on a good book, sitting and standing with better posture—shoulders back, abdominals tight, taking slow, deep breaths, and consuming as few prescription medications as possible.
Matson says we need to start rethinking how we perceive the aging process. “As we get older and start to lose our abilities and gain aches and pains, the first thing that comes to mind is aging. But we also think it’s normal to be overweight at 40, have multiple chronic diseases by 60 and be dependent by 70. Raise your expectations. Some people are ‘old’ at 50, while others are ‘young’ at 75. The key is adopting a different mindset about aging.”
Are You Healthier than a 100-Year-Old?
6 Fun Activities That Count as Exercise
10 Things That are Aging You—and How to Overcome Them
How Food Labels Confuse Us about Sugar
A Game Plan for Breaking a Bad Habit