A nationwide poll has confirmed a link between healthy behaviors and a lower risk of mild memory complaints.
But the poll, conducted by researchers from the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) and the Gallup organization, also turned up some unexpected findings, including a higher-than-expected percentage of younger adults who complained about their memory.
The researchers polled 18,500 people between the ages of 18 and 99, calling them on both land lines and cell phones in December 2011 and January 2012.
They asked each person five questions:
- Do you smoke?
- Did you eat healthy all day yesterday?
- In the last seven days, on how many days did you have five or more servings of vegetables and fruits?
- In the last seven days, on how many days did you exercise for 30 minutes or more?
- Do you have any problems with your memory?
As expected, the researchers found that healthy eating, not smoking and exercising regularly were related to better self-perceived memory for most adult groups. They also found that reports of memory problems increased with age.
However, there were a few surprises, according to the researchers.
Older adults (age 60-99) were more likely to report engaging in healthy behaviors than middle-aged (40-59) and younger adults (18-39). And a surprising 14 percent of the younger group complained about problems with their memory.
“These findings reinforce the importance of educating young and middle-aged individuals to take greater responsibility for their health — including memory — by practicing positive lifestyle behaviors earlier in life,” said the study’s first author, Gary Small, M.D., director of the UCLA Longevity Center and a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences.
The researchers also found that the more healthy lifestyles a person practiced, the less likely they were to complain about problems with their memories, said Fernando Torres-Gil, Ph.D., senior author of the study and associate director of the UCLA Longevity Center.
Respondents across all age groups who engaged in just one healthy behavior were 21 percent less likely to report memory problems than those who didn’t engage in any healthy behaviors, according to the poll.
Those with two positive behaviors were 45 percent less likely to report problems; those with three were 75 percent less likely; and those with more than three were 111 percent less likely.
The poll also found that healthy behaviors were more common among older adults than the other two age groups. About 70 percent of older adults engaged in at least one healthy behavior, compared with 61 percent of middle-aged individuals, and 58 percent of younger respondents.
Additionally, only 12 percent of older adults smoked, compared with 25 percent of young adults and 24 percent of middle-aged adults. A higher percentage of older adults — 80 percent — also reported eating healthy the day before being interviewed and eating five or more daily servings of fruits and vegetables during the previous week (64 percent).
The researchers speculate that older adults may engage in more healthy behaviors because they feel the consequences of unhealthy living and take the advice of their doctors to adopt healthier lifestyles. Another theory: There could be fewer older adults with bad habits, since they may not live as long.
The poll found that 26 percent of older adults and 22 percent of middle-aged respondents reported memory issues, while 14 percent of the younger people complained about problems with their memory.
“Memory issues were to be expected in the middle-aged and older groups, but not in younger people,” Small said. “A better understanding and recognition of mild memory symptoms earlier in life may have the potential to help all ages.”
He adds that memory issues in younger people may be different from those in older people, noting that stress may play more of a role. He also noted that the younger generation’s widespread use of technology, from the Internet to texting to smartphones, may impact attention span, making it harder to focus and remember.
Small noted that further study and polling may help tease out what actually affects the differences in memory complaints.
Meanwhile, he said, the current survey reinforces the importance for people of all ages to adopt a healthy lifestyle to help limit age-related cognitive decline.
The study was published in International Psychogeriatrics.