While much time and energy are being devoted to COVID-19, it is also important that we remember that this virus is a problem that will eventually pass, just like every pandemic in history. Many of us will be affected. Some will even die. But most of us will survive to pick up the pieces of our lives and our society and carry on.
That means we need to take care of ourselves and our friends and families over the long haul as well as the short term.
Some of the things we need to consider are making healthy lifestyle choices that have been linked to reduced risk for Alzheimer dementia.
According to a recent study from Rush University Medical Center, we can make a real difference in our future ability to think and remember by not smoking, being physically and mentally active and having a high-quality diet.
The researchers reviewed data from two study populations: the Chicago Health and Aging Project (CHAP), with 1,845 participants; and the Memory and Aging Project (MAP), with 920 participants.
They defined a healthy lifestyle score on the basis of the following factors: not smoking, engaging in at least 150 minutes per week of physical exercise of moderate to vigorous intensity, light to moderate alcohol consumption (between 1 and less than 15 grams per day for women and between 1 and less than 30 for men), consuming a high-quality Mediterranean-DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet (upper 40 percent), and engaging in late-life cognitive activities (upper 40 percent). The overall score ranged from 0 to 5.
At the beginning of the studies, the mean age of participants was 73.2 years in the CHAP study and 81.1 years in the MAP study; 62.4% of the CHAP participants and 75.2% of the MAP participants were women.
During a median follow-up of 5.8 years in CHAP and 6.0 years in MAP, a total of 379 and 229 participants, respectively, developed Alzheimer dementia. Rates of dementia decreased with an increasing number of healthy lifestyle behaviors.
After complex and careful analysis of the data from these two groups, the risk for Alzheimer dementia was 27% lower with each additional healthy lifestyle factor.
Compared to individuals with a healthy lifestyle score of 0 to 1, the risk was 37% lower for those with two or three healthy lifestyle factors and 60% lower for those with four or five healthy lifestyle factors.
From these findings and the fact that the lifestyle factors they studied are modifiable and in direct control of the individual, it seems logical to promote them among older adults as a strategy to delay or prevent dementia.
Even though it is not guaranteed to be a cause-and-effect result, it appears to be a strong finding because of being found across two different data sets. The combination of modifiable lifestyle factors appears to lead to risk reduction.
To test out the idea that we might modify our dementia risk with lifestyle changes, numerous clinical trials using lifestyle interventions against dementia development are currently underway.
In the meantime, what have we got to lose by trying these five things?
• Do not smoke.
• Do moderate or vigorous exercise for at least 150 minutes (2.5 hours) per week.
• Light to moderate alcohol consumption (about one daily drink for women or two for men, or less). A drink is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor.
• Consume a high-quality Mediterranean-DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet. (You may need to consult a dietitian or at least check Google for this.)
• Engage in late-life cognitive activities, like thoughtful conversations, art classes, language classes, nature walks, jigsaw puzzles, sudoku, word games, etc.
Personally, the diet is the only one of these that I find not to be straight forward. In fact, for my next column, I am going to try to summarize the MIND diet in a way that I can understand and (potentially) follow it.
For right now, that third lifestyle recommendation seems particularly appealing to me. In fact, I have friends who combine it with the second recommendation to produce something they call their nightly “wine walk.”
Since they do not smoke, all they need to add is thoughtful conversation and they have four of the five lifestyle recommendations conquered.