The findings can’t guarantee that healthy living will prevent
Alzheimer’s disease but they add to growing evidence that suggests
overall health is tied to dementia risk.
“This is really hard evidence that we can do something for brain
health,” said Dr. Miia Kivipelto, the study’s lead author, from the
Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.
The findings also show that it’s not too late to help brain health
since the participants were all at risk for Alzheimer’s disease,
She and her colleagues presented their findings at the Alzheimer’s
Association International Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark.
An estimated 35.6 million people are living with dementia worldwide,
according to the World Health Organization. Alzheimer’s disease is
the most common form of dementia.
Another study presented at the same conference also suggested that
controlling certain risk factors, such as high blood pressure,
obesity and diabetes, may reduce the worldwide prevalence of
Alzheimer’s by almost a third.
People with Alzheimer’s experience memory loss, which worsens with
time. The disease leads to problems with decision making and an
inability to perform daily tasks. Eventually, the complications from
Alzheimer’s disease lead to death.
Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S.,
according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About
5.3 million Americans have the disease.
For the new study, the researchers recruited 1,260 Finnish adults
between the ages of 60 and 77 years to take part in the two-year
All of the participants scored above a cutoff point on a list of
lifestyle risk factors for cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s, and
on a neurological test, all had cognitive performance that was
average or slightly below average for their age.
The participants were randomly assigned to a group that received
basic health advice or a group that took part in a multi-component
program targeting diet, exercise, heart health and brain and social
The multi-component intervention was delivered during a series of
group sessions over the course of the study.
After two years, the researchers found the group that just got basic
health advice experienced substantially more cognitive decline than
the program participants.
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“We saw about a 40 percent difference between the intervention and
the control groups,” Kivipelto said. “It was clear the intervention
group improved from baseline.”
She said the difference was robust but it’s difficult to say whether
the participants experienced a noticeable difference. A longer trial
that’s in the works will have to look at the real-world effect on
people who stick with the program and whether the intervention
"I think the evidence is that this delays onset for people who don’t
have it,” said Dr. Sam Gandy, who was not involved in the new study.
“For people that do, it slows the progression. Whether it completely
protects everyone, I would doubt it. Maybe there are people who have
a mildly increased risk and this could prevent it."
Gandy directs the Center for Cognitive Health at Mount Sinai
Hospital in New York City.
Kivipelto cautioned that a healthy lifestyle is no guarantee that a
person won’t develop Alzheimer’s.
“We know that there are people who get other diseases even if
they’re living in a healthy way,” Kivipelto said. "We don’t want to
label anybody who has Alzheimer’s that 'this is because of your
Still, she said, it’s not too early to recommend interventions that
target diet, exercise, heart health and brain and social engagement.
Many of those interventions also target other chronic health
“It’s not too early,” she said. “We’ve already had observational
studies showing the same thing.”
Gandy said he already gives his patients and their caregivers
"I tell them both that these are the most important things they can
do to keep their brains healthy," he said.
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