Lifestyle changes may offset cognitive decline


Lifestyle changes may offset cognitive decline


A study of older adults has demonstrated that a change in diet and an increase in physical activity can reduce the risk of dementia – even if the person has already received a diagnosis of cognitive decline.

Dementia is used to describe a group of disorders which are characterised by problems with thinking, remembering, and reasoning. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of cognitive decline.

Scientists know that some lifestyle factors can increase the risk of developing dementia, although they do not know the exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease. These factors include smoking, alcohol consumption, diet, and lack of physical activity. In fact, it is estimated that up to half of all Alzheimer’s cases could have links to certain lifestyle factors.

A study from The Australian National University in Canberra has trialled a variety of lifestyle interventions in people who have already been diagnosed with cognitive decline. The aim of the study was to assess whether the changes were able to improve their cognitive state and potentially reduce the risk of developing dementia.

The study, published in The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, found that people who actively changed certain aspects of their lifestyle experienced significant improvements in their cognition. This suggests that making these lifestyle changes could slow or change the course of cognitive decline, and reduce the person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.


The interventions

The study involved 119 people aged 65 or over who had either had subjective cognitive decline (SCD), which is the self-reported experience of confusion or memory loss; or mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which is a clinically diagnosed form of cognitive decline.  Both are considered early symptoms of dementia, although not everyone with one of these conditions will develop dementia.

The study, which is part of the Body, Brain, Life for Cognitive Decline (BBL-CD) trial, aimed to find evidence of whether diet and activity levels can reduce the risk of dementia in people already diagnosed with cognitive decline.

The group of participants were split into two groups. One group was the active control group, who completed online modules on dementia risk, including details on a Mediterranean diet.

The second group, the intervention group, completed the same online training and also participated in practical activities. This included meeting with a dietician and exercise physiologist, as well as completing brain training exercises.


Risk reduction

At the end of the study, the intervention group’s cognition levels were found to be significantly higher than that of the control group. The cognitive decline was measured using several tools, including the Alzheimer’s Disease Assessment Scale Cognitive Subscale.

In addition, exposure to lifestyle risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease (which was assessed using a risk index developed by the Australian National University) was found to be significantly lower in the intervention group at the three month follow up.

However, this was not the case at the final six month follow up, which points to evidence that people need to maintain the dietary and activity changes to see continued benefit.

Overall, the results demonstrated that people who are already experiencing cognitive decline are able to reduce their risk of developing dementia by implementing relatively simple and cost effective lifestyle changes.

Mitchell McMaster, lead study author said “[W]ith the right intervention, people experiencing cognitive decline may retain sufficient neuroplasticity for their brain to ‘bounce back’ from decline.”



Larger trials needed

This study adds to the evidence that making certain lifestyle changes can boost cognition. However, the study was relatively short, and the maximum follow up was just 6 months.

The researchers say that a larger trial with more participants over a more extended period of time will be required to confirm the findings and show sustained cognition improvements.

The fact that the study also revealed that if people did not maintain a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease suggests that people may require booster sessions to ensure continued benefits.

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