Summary: Adopting a healthy lifestyle, in particular, a healthy diet was associated with a slower than average decline in memory over ten years in older adults, even those with the APOE4 Alzheimer’s associated genetic variant.
A healthy lifestyle, in particular a healthy diet, is associated with slower memory decline, finds a decade-long study of older adults in China, published today in The BMJ.
Even for carriers of the apolipoprotein E (APOE) gene—the strongest known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias—a healthy lifestyle was found to slow memory loss.
Memory continuously declines as people age, but evidence from existing studies is insufficient to assess the effect of a healthy lifestyle on memory in later life. And given the many possible causes of memory decline, a combination of healthy behaviors might be needed for an optimal effect.
To explore this further, researchers analyzed data from 29,000 adults aged at least 60 years (average age 72; 49% women) with normal cognitive function who were part of the China Cognition and Aging Study.
At the start of the study in 2009, memory function was measured using the Auditory Verbal Learning test (AVLT) and participants were tested for the APOE gene (20% were found to be carriers). Follow-up assessments were then conducted over the next 10 years in 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2019.
A healthy lifestyle score combining six factors was then calculated: healthy diet, regular exercise, active social contact (eg. seeing friends and family), cognitive activity (eg. writing, reading, playing mahjong), non-smoking, and never drinking alcohol.
Based on their score, ranging from 0 to 6, participants were put into favorable (4 to 6 healthy factors), average (2 to 3 healthy factors), or unfavorable (0 to 1 healthy factors) lifestyle groups and into APOE carrier and non-carrier groups.
After accounting for a range of other health, economic and social factors, the researchers found that each individual healthy behavior was associated with a slower than average decline in memory over 10 years.
A healthy diet had the strongest effect on slowing memory decline, followed by cognitive activity and then physical exercise.
Compared with the group that had unfavorable lifestyles, memory decline in the favorable lifestyle group was 0.28 points slower over 10 years based on a standardized score (z score) of the AVLT, and memory decline in the average lifestyle group was 0.16 points slower.
Participants with the APOE gene with favorable and average lifestyles also experienced a slower rate of memory decline than those with an unfavorable lifestyle (0.027 and 0.014 points per year slower, respectively).
What’s more, those with favorable or average lifestyles were almost 90% and almost 30% less likely to develop dementia or mild cognitive impairment relative to those with an unfavorable lifestyle, and the APOE group had similar results.
This is an observational study so can’t establish cause and the researchers acknowledge some limitations, such as the potential for measurement errors due to self-reporting of lifestyle factors, and the possibility of selection bias, as some participants did not return for follow-up evaluations.
But this was a large study with a long follow-up period, allowing for evaluation of individual lifestyle factors on memory function over time. And findings remained significant after further analyses, suggesting that they are robust.
As such, the researchers say their results provide strong evidence that adherence to a healthy lifestyle with a combination of positive behaviors is associated with a slower rate of memory decline, even for people who are genetically susceptible to memory decline.
They suggest further research could focus on the effects of a healthy lifestyle on memory decline across the lifespan, acknowledging that memory problems can also affect younger people, not included in this study. “These results might offer important information for public health initiatives to protect older adults against memory decline,” they conclude.
“Prevention is important, given the absence of effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias,” say researchers in a linked editorial.
However, they point out that these results do not help to determine which among the six health behaviors included in the score (or specific combination) is the best target for dementia prevention, or when in the life course to focus prevention efforts. Further insight is also needed to determine whether the differences in memory decline observed in this study are clinically meaningful, they add.
They suggest a similar approach that led to a substantial reduction in cardiovascular disease should be taken with dementia prevention, “identifying not only the factors that matter most but also the threshold at which they matter, and the age when intervention is likely to be most effective.”
About this memory and aging research news
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Association between healthy lifestyle and memory decline in older adults: 10 year, population based, prospective cohort study
To identify an optimal lifestyle profile to protect against memory loss in older individuals.
Population based, prospective cohort study.
Participants from areas representative of the north, south, and west of China.
Individuals aged 60 years or older who had normal cognition and underwent apolipoprotein E (APOE) genotyping at baseline in 2009.
Main outcome measures
Participants were followed up until death, discontinuation, or 26 December 2019. Six healthy lifestyle factors were assessed: a healthy diet (adherence to the recommended intake of at least 7 of 12 eligible food items), regular physical exercise (≥150 min of moderate intensity or ≥75 min of vigorous intensity, per week), active social contact (≥twice per week), active cognitive activity (≥twice per week), never or previously smoked, and never drinking alcohol. Participants were categorised into the favourable group if they had four to six healthy lifestyle factors, into the average group for two to three factors, and into the unfavourable group for zero to one factor. Memory function was assessed using the World Health Organization/University of California-Los Angeles Auditory Verbal Learning Test, and global cognition was assessed via the Mini-Mental State Examination. Linear mixed models were used to explore the impact of lifestyle factors on memory in the study sample.
29 072 participants were included (mean age of 72.23 years; 48.54% (n=14 113) were women; and 20.43% (n=5939) were APOE ε4 carriers). Over the 10 year follow-up period (2009-19), participants in the favourable group had slower memory decline than those in the unfavourable group (by 0.028 points/year, 95% confidence interval 0.023 to 0.032, P<0.001). APOE ε4 carriers with favourable (0.027, 95% confidence interval 0.023 to 0.031) and average (0.014, 0.010 to 0.019) lifestyles exhibited a slower memory decline than those with unfavourable lifestyles. Among people who were not carriers of APOE ε4, similar results were observed among participants in the favourable (0.029 points/year, 95% confidence interval 0.019 to 0.039) and average (0.019, 0.011 to 0.027) groups compared with those in the unfavourable group. APOE ε4 status and lifestyle profiles did not show a significant interaction effect on memory decline (P=0.52).
A healthy lifestyle is associated with slower memory decline, even in the presence of the APOE ε4 allele. This study might offer important information to protect older adults against memory decline.