Lifestyle changes that beat Alzheimer’s

Simple changes to your lifestyle could prevent Alzheimer’s disease, even if cognitive decline has already set in, says new research from the Australian National University (ANU).

The study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society and conducted by ANU PhD candidate Mitchell McMaster, created a lifestyle modification program and found it reduced dementia risk for people over 65 experiencing early signs of Alzheimer’s.

“It looks like you can reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s, even when you are at an older age and experiencing cognitive decline,” said Mr McMaster.

“It is a really good indication that if you modify your lifestyle there is still hope to reduce dementia risk, which is a really exciting finding for this field of study.” 

A group of 119 participants spent six months making lifestyle changes involving diet, exercise, brain training and adhering to a Mediterranean diet.

At the same time, a control group completed online education to make changes to their lifestyle independently. 

After six months, those who were given the additional guidance from dietitians, exercise physiologists, and cognitive health experts experienced a significantly lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

The routine even improved participants’ cognitive abilities compared to those who weren’t given the extra support.   

“People who reported having cognitive decline, or mild symptoms relating to Alzheimer’s disease, were able to turn it around with active lifestyle changes relating to exercise, a healthy diet and brain training,” said Mr McMaster.

“This study really confirms that for those already experiencing cognitive decline, it’s never too late to make some positive changes to your lifestyle to reduce your risk of dementia.

“Through greater research and investigation into this area, we could see some fantastic developments for the future of Alzheimer’s prevention.”  

One participant, Bob Gardiner, lost 7kg, got back into exercise and went on to publish a children’s book due to the effectiveness of the program. 

“I was prepared to go through anything,” said Mr Gardiner

“When we did the questionnaire, they asked [for] my greatest fear and I said it was losing my marbles.

“I have always been very concerned to keep my cognitive faculties going. My great fear would be to lose those.”

During the program, he stuck to the compulsory Mediterranean diet, which mainly consisted of fruit, vegetables, fish, nuts and legumes, and olive oil, and lost nearly 7kg.

“I was more active and feeling more active,” he said.

“The food helped big time.”

The ANU tests aimed to find a measure of ‘global cognition’.

“We had a range of tests, neuropsychological tests,” said Mr McMaster.

“We combined those to get a measure of global cognition, [which is] a combination of all the different cognitive functions, like your memory and processing speed.”

Working with an exercise physiologist, participants increased exercise routines such as cycling, swimming or walking to between two and three hours of moderate exercise a week.

They also did brain training exercises to improve memory function.

The researchers then measured changes in each participant using standardised tests. A two-point change led to a significant increase in quality of health and less chance of dementia.

“We were able to change it by two-and-a-half points, which is equal to low-to-moderate exercise,” he said.

“This was a proof-of-concept study, where you prove an idea that appears to be working in the short-term to get funding for a larger study to provide more conclusive proof.”

Mr McMaster’s PhD scholarship was supported by the Dementia Australia Research Foundation and Neuroscience Research Australia. 

How likely would you be to change your life in order to reduce your risk of dementia?

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