Five Lifestyle Factors That May Help Prevent Dementia

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Feb. 6., 2024 – People who live a healthy lifestyle may be more resilient to brain changes that can cause symptoms of dementia, compared to people with the same brain changes who don’t have healthy habits in five key areas, an important new study shows.

The study is particularly compelling because researchers examined people’s brains after death. They looked for Alzheimer’s-related brain changes called beta-amyloid load, phosphorylated tau tangles, and problems related to blood flow in the brain.

Published Monday in the journal JAMA Neurology, researchers analyzed data from 586 people who died between 1997 and 2022 and had provided up to 24 years of health data, in addition to their brains, as part of the Rush Memory and Aging Project. Among the people in the study, 78% were female and the average age at death was 91 years old. 

The researchers found that having a higher lifestyle score based on a calculation from five lifestyle factors was linked to  better overall cognitive functioning as a person aged. The five factors that made up a lifestyle score were diet, physical activity, cognitive engagement, smoking status, and alcohol consumption. People’s cognitive function was measured using 19 tests that the people took regularly as part of the study, and the 19 scores were combined to provide an overall measurement of cognitive function.

Specifically, the study showed that people whose lifestyle included the following traits tended to be resilient to brain changes that may otherwise cause cognitive problems:

  • Not currently being a smoker
  • Getting at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week
  • Limiting alcohol consumption (up to one drink per day for women, two per day for men)
  • Following a Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet
  • Engaging in late-life cognitive activities like reading the newspaper, writing letters, going to the library, or playing games like chess or checkers.

Dementia affects more than 55 million people worldwide, with 10 million new cases each year, according to the World Health Organization. It’s the seventh leading cause of death globally, and women are disproportionately affected by the group of progressive diseases that impact people’s memory, thinking, and ability to perform daily activities. There is no treatment to stop or reverse the progression of dementia, of which Alzheimer’s disease is the most common.

There is an “urgent need” for more examination of how to reduce the risk of developing dementia, an editorial published alongside the study stated, adding that adopting the five lifestyle factors in the study “should be offered in conjunction with [Alzheimer’s disease] medications, similar to the approach in cardiovascular disease prevention and treatment in which medications along with lifestyle strategies are the standard of care.”