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Healthy Lifestyle Helps Slow Mental Decline

Regimen helped participants with ability to organize thoughts and with mental processing speed


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A large study has confirmed what doctors have suspected for years: that embracing a healthy lifestyle can slow the rate of cognitive aging. The study, published in March 2015 in The Lancet, found that a combination of a healthy diet, strength training, aerobic exercise, and controlling blood pressure and weight slows mental decline in older people.

For this study, 1,260 Finnish men and women ages 60 to 77 who were at high risk for developing dementia were divided into two groups. Half of the people participated in an intensive program that included exercise, nutritional counseling and brain training exercises, in addition to monitoring blood pressure and weight. The other half received regular health advice. After two years, the researchers measured the mental fitness of study subjects.

They found that scores on a standard brain function test were 25 percent higher in the lifestyle modification group than in the control group. Executive functioning — the brain's ability to organize thoughts — was 83 percent higher in the intervention group, and mental processing speed was an impressive 150 percent higher. Interestingly, initial analysis did not find an improvement in memory.

Lead author Miia Kivipelto of Sweden's Karolinska Institute said that she suspects the combination of interventions was critical: "It's not enough to do one of these things."

"It's a terrific study in terms of sample size and interventions," said Murali Doraiswamy, M.D., director of the neurocognitive disorders program at the Duke University School of Medicine. He added, however, that the study period was too short to test whether the effects truly translate into lower risk for Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia and that the "lack of effects on memory was a disappointment" since memory loss is a key feature of the disease.

The Study's Brain-Healthy Program

Nutritional counseling. Nutritionists counseled participants to follow the Finnish Nutritional Recommendations that include plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole-grain cereals and low-fat milk, use of margarine and grapeseed oil (similar to canola oil) instead of butter, and fish at least twice a week.

Strength training. Trainers worked with participants at a gym one to three times a week to train key muscle groups including abdominal, lower and upper back, arms and legs, and they included exercises to maintain or improve balance.

Aerobic training. Participants chose exercises on their own — whatever activity appealed to them — or joined group exercise classes two to five times a week. Kivipelto said it was important that participants chose exercise they enjoyed.

Brain training. Psychologists led group counseling sessions on age-related memory changes, and participants also did individual computer-based training designed by the researchers.

Social activity. This was stimulated through multiple group meetings and sessions.

Heart health. Nurses measured blood pressure, weight, BMI, and hip and waist circumference. They did not prescribe medication but strongly recommended that study participants contact their physicians if medication were warranted.

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