What you do and eat can affect your risk of dementia

March 12, 2019 in Health Risk Management  •  By Miles Varn, MD

Approximately 5.7 million people in the U.S. are living with Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, and other types of dementia. As the population of older people swells with the addition of the baby boom generation, that number is projected to increase. But there are lifestyle changes you can make now that can lower your risk of developing some forms of dementia. There are even steps you can take to sharpen your cognitive abilities if you’ve already been diagnosed with dementia.

The effect of staying active on brain health

A new study published in Neurology sought to find out if being physically active in middle age affected the risk of developing dementia when you’re older. The study, which only included women, followed the participants for 44 years starting in their late 30s to mid-40s with an average age of 47. At the start of the study, the researchers used a 1 to 10 score to rank participants’ mental and physical activity levels. Mental activity was defined as taking part in artistic activities, playing an instrument, reading, attending concerts, and taking part in clubs and religious activities. Physical activity included a range of activity levels, from gardening and bowling for four hours a week to running, aerobic exercise, and swimming several times a week.

The researchers discovered that the women who had the highest levels of mental activity in middle age were 46% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and 34% less likely to develop all forms of dementia than those with low levels of mental activity. The women who were most physically active were 53% less likely to develop vascular dementia (dementia caused by impaired blood flow to the brain) as well as 56% less like to develop mixed dementia (a combination of two or more types of dementia) than women in the study who were inactive, suggesting that being mentally and physically active throughout your life may be linked to a lower risk of developing dementia.

Another study led by Dr. Aron Buchman, professor of neurological sciences at Rush University Medical Center, found that remaining active as you age can counterbalance some of the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. The study, which is part of the long term Rush Aging and Memory Project, followed more than 450 people who lived to an average age of 90. Their cognitive and motor skills were measured at regular intervals with a series of tests. In addition, after they died, their brains were examined for signs of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

What the researchers found was that higher levels of physical activity were associated with a lower risk of dementia and better cognition. Although the more active participants showed fewer signs of dementia while they were alive, their brains showed signs of the types of deterioration associated with dementia similar to what was found in participants who were less active. This suggests that the ability of the brain to function may have been protected by being more active even though brain changes still occurred on a cellular level.

Diet also plays a role

Another new study recently published in Neurology uncovered a link between eating a heart healthy Mediterranean diet focused primarily on plant-based foods in your 20s and better cognitive health in middle age. The people who followed the diet more strictly scored higher on cognitive tests in middle age, especially ones that focused on executive functioning (the ability to organize and plan), with a 46% to 52% lower risk of poor cognitive function.

The key takeaway from all three studies is that making healthy lifestyle choices when you’re younger can have a positive impact on not only your physical health, but also your brain health as you age.