A new study from Finland, recently published in the Lancet, shows that a targeted program that combines the right foods, the right exercise, “brain training” and medical management of risk factors such as high blood pressure, may help halt mental decline in older adults. Although other research has demonstrated a relationship between each of these factors and improved cognitive health in aging populations, this is the first time these lifestyle factors have been put to the test in a large randomized controlled trial. This type of clinical trial is general considered the “gold standard” for evaluating effectiveness of any medical approach.
The Finnish study included 1,260 people from age 60 to 77, none of whom had been diagnosed with dementia. At the beginning of the study, all the participants scored at or just below average for their age on standardized cognitive performance tests. Each participant was assigned randomly to either a control group or an intervention group. The control group received standard advice on their healthcare management. The intervention group, however, had regular consultations with physicians and other health professionals, in which they were given detailed advice on diet, exercise and “brain training.” Members of the intervention group were also screened for heart disease and other health problems, and if a health condition was identified, participants were encouraged to follow up with their private doctors.
The results were impressive. After two years, the researchers re-tested the cognitive skills of all the participants. The people in the intervention group scored 25 percent higher overall than the people in the control group. In two parts of the test, the differences were quite dramatic: Executive function, the high-level cognitive capabilities that enable people to organize and prioritize thoughts and make decisions, rose 83 percent in the intervention group. Processing speed rose 150 percent higher. Memory scores, however, did not change.
Here are the 5 Lifestyle Guidelines:
1. Diet – Eat a diet focused on mostly fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk and lean meats. Eat fish at least 3 times a week. Limit alcohol consumption to no more than 5 percent of daily calories, and sugar consumption to no more than 10%.
2. Aerobic Exercise – Participate in some type of aerobic exercise two to five times a week.
3. Weight Lifting – Do progressive muscle strength training one to three times a week.
4. Brain Training – Participate in “brain training” exercises. There are several online programs that have demonstrated effectiveness.
5. Medical Management – Work with your personal physician to manage any medical conditions, such as high blood pressure.
One of the positive notes to emerge from this study is that participants in the intervention group had a high rate of adherence to the program. One hundred percent of them reported following at least some of the nutritional advice, and 90 percent reported following the exercise program, at least to a degree. The group experienced no serious side effects, although 5 percent of participants did have some exercise-related muscle discomfort, compared to none in the control group.
The study is ongoing, and will eventually encompass a 7 year period.