A 10-year study of Chinese adults over the age of 60 showed that a healthy lifestyle, particularly a nutritious diet, is associated with slowing memory decline in the elderly.
Published in The BMJ, the major new research shows that the benefits of healthy living are seen even in those who have a gene that makes them genetically susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease.
Carriers of the apolipoprotein E (APOE) gene — the strongest known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia — experienced a slowing of memory loss associated with healthy habits, such as abstaining from alcohol.
Memory continues to decline as people age, the Chinese research team said, but evidence from existing studies was insufficient to assess the impact of a healthy lifestyle on memory later in life.
Given the many possible causes of memory decline, they explain that a combination of healthy behaviors may be needed to achieve the best effect.
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The best combination of these six healthy habits
The researchers analyzed data from 29,000 adults over the age of 60 with normal cognitive function. The average age of the group was 72 and almost half were women.
At the start of the study in 2009, memory function was measured using the Auditory Verbal Learning Test (AVLT) and participants were tested for the APOE gene. 20 percent were found to be carriers. Follow-up evaluations were then conducted in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2019.
Then a healthy lifestyle score was calculated that combines six factors – diet, regular exercise, active social contact, cognitive activity (such as reading and writing), not smoking, and never drinking alcohol.
Based on their score, which ranged from zero to six, participants were placed into lifestyle groups of favorable (four to six health factors), average (two or three), or unfavorable (one or zero)—and separated into a group APOE carrier and non-carrier combinations.
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After accounting for other health, economic, and social factors, the researchers found that each individual health behavior was associated with a slower-than-average decline in memory over a 10-year period.
A healthy diet had the strongest effect on slowing memory decline, followed by cognitive activity and then physical exercise. said the lead author of the study Professor Jianping Jia.
Compared with the group that had unfavorable lifestyles, memory decline in the pro-lifestyle group was 0.28 points slower over 10 years based on a standardized AVLT score, and memory decline in the average lifestyle group was 0.16 points slower.
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Participants with the APOE gene with moderately favorable lifestyles also experienced a slower rate of memory decline compared to those with an unfavorable lifestyle.
“What’s more, those with favorable, average lifestyles were nearly 90 percent and nearly 30 percent less likely to develop dementia or mild cognitive impairment than those with unfavorable lifestyles—and the APOE group achieved similar results.”
He said the research was observational, so a cause could not be determined, but it was a large study with a long follow-up period, allowing individual lifestyle factors to be assessed on memory function over time.
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The researchers say their findings provide “strong evidence” that adhering to a healthy lifestyle with a range of positive behaviors is associated with a slower rate of memory decline, even for people who are genetically susceptible to memory decline.
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