Diet, Exercise Protect Brain in Later Life
Research supports a healthy diet and moderate exercise for protection against cognitive decline and dementia. Results presented at last year’s Alzheimer’s Association Conference in Vienna, Austria, suggest that a “heart healthy” diet and maintaining or increasing physical activity may help preserve memory and thinking abilities.
The research looked at the effects of the so-called Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, which consists of fruit, vegetables, nuts or legumes, whole grains, low-fat dairy and fish. The diet is often recommended for high blood pressure or pre-hypertension. A consequence of reducing blood pressure is a reduction in the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Researcher Dr. Heidi Wengreen of Utah State University and colleagues followed 3,831 people 65 years of age or older. Greater adherence to the diet was linked with better cognitive functioning. In four assessments over 11 years, those in the top fifth for adherence to the diet scored significantly higher than did those in the bottom fifth.
Four of the nine food groups were also independently associated with cognitive function scores. These were vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and nuts or legumes. “Our results suggest that including whole grains, vegetables, low-fat dairy foods, and nuts in one’s diet may offer benefits for cognition in late life,” Wengreen said. “However, we need more research before we can confidently say how much of these foods to include in your diet to experience some benefit.”
Dr. William Thies of the Alzheimer’s Association commented, “We can’t do anything about aging or family history, but research continues to show us that there are lifestyle decisions we all can make to keep our brains healthier, and that also may lower our risk of memory decline as we age.”
Also at the conference, Dr. Deborah Barnes of the University of California, San Francisco, and colleagues presented evidence based on 3,075 older adults that cognitive decline was slower in those whose exercise levels remained constant or increased.
In the study, physical activity was calculated by number of minutes walked per week at the beginning of the study, and after two, four, and seven years. At each time point, participants were classified as sedentary (0 minutes per week), low (less than 150 minutes per week) or high (150 minutes per week or more).
Just over a fifth (21 percent) of study participants were consistently sedentary, 12 percent maintained their activity levels, 26 percent had declining levels, and 41 percent had increasing or fluctuating levels.