Doctors have the first conclusive proof that changes to lifestyle among the over-60s can slow mental decline – raising the prospects of dementia prevention programmes that cut your risk of the disease.
Findings from a two-year study of more than 1,200 60 to 77-year-olds in Finland, published in The Lancet medical journal, reveal that a group who received thorough advice about diet, regular exercise sessions, brain training and health check-ups performed better in cognitive tests than a group who received only the standard medical advice.
The results are significant, as it is believed to be the first randomised and controlled trial to conclusively demonstrate that keeping the body healthy in later life also benefits the brain.
The participants will now be followed up over seven years to see if those who received the intensive healthcare intervention are less likely to develop dementia.
Overall scores in mental tests after two years were 25 per cent better in the group who received the intensive health programme. In particular areas they were even more striking.
Scores for executive functioning – the brain’s ability to organise thought processes – were 83 per cent higher in the intervention group, while mental processing speeds were 150 per cent higher. All participants in the trial were judged to have a high risk of dementia at the start.
The effect on memory scores was not as pronounced, but Professor Miia Kivipelto, from the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, who led the study, said the findings were encouraging.
“Much previous research has shown that there are links between cognitive decline in older people and factors such as diet, heart health, and fitness,” she said. “However, our study is the first large randomised controlled trial to show an intensive programme aimed at addressing these risk factors might be able to prevent cognitive decline in elderly people who are at risk of dementia.”
Despite the huge medical and social toll of dementia, research into new drug treatments has been largely unsuccessful – making prevention even more important.
In the UK, there are already 850,000 people living with dementia, and the condition costs £26bn per year, with the burden falling on over-stretched social care services, the NHS and families.
Dr Doug Brown, director of research and development at the Alzheimer’s Society, said the message from the Finnish study was “very positive”.
“Giving people a helping hand with looking after their health in later life has a significant impact on several brain functions… this highlights the value of widespread initiatives to improve public health,” he said.
The mechanisms by which poor physical health can affect the brain and lead to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are complex, and in most cases not yet fully understood. In the case of vascular dementia, the second most common form, it is known that poor blood supply to the brain causes brain cells to become unhealthy and die – explaining the link to cardiovascular health in some cases.
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