6 healthy lifestyle choices to lower your risk of Alzheimer’s

6 healthy lifestyle choices to lower your risk of Alzheimer’s
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The good news: a massive new study published last week in the medical journal The BMJ reveals a healthy lifestyle is directly linked with a lower risk of dementia and a slower rate of memory decline in people 60+, even for those carrying the APOEε4 gene, a major risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.

Adherence to six “healthy lifestyle factors” was associated with positive cognitive outcomes for people in the study, which followed 29,000 individuals in China over ten years from 2009 to 2019. They include a balanced diet, exercising the mind and body, regular social contact, and not drinking or smoking.

The study adds to a growing body of evidence that a healthy lifestyle helps all brains age better.

While memory naturally declines with age — called “senescent forgetfulness” — losing your keys or glasses can also be a prodrome for dementia. (Word of the day: prodrome, an early symptom indicating the onset of a disease or illness.)

Under the right circumstances, however, those instances “can be reversed or become stable,” the study’s authors write, “rather than progress to a pathological state.”

Researchers sorted the participants’ results into three groups based on self-reported lifestyle choices: favorable, average, and unfavorable.

People in the favorable group, classified as adhering to four to six healthy factors, and the average group (two to three) had a slower rate of memory decline over time than those in the unfavorable group (zero to one). The favorable cohort was also less likely to progress to mild cognitive impairment and dementia.

As far as healthy lifestyle choices go, the authors found that more is better.

“Although each lifestyle factor contributed differentially to slowing memory decline, our results showed that participants who maintained more healthy lifestyle factors had a significantly slower memory decline than those with fewer healthy lifestyle factors.” 

In other words — as Liberace once said — “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.”

These are the six “healthy lifestyle factors” participants did or didn’t follow. How would you score?

1. Physical exercise

Performing at least 150 minutes or more of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week.

Researchers followed U.S. government guidelines for physical activity in adults for this category. One sweaty trip to Crunch or a couple of long walks on the beach checks this box on your list.

2. Active cognitive activity

Exercising the brain two or more times a week.

The study authors kept an eye on engagement frequency for this category. The more frequently participants were engaged in cognitive activity, like reading, writing, and playing games — mahjong in particular, in China — the better off they were.

Your mind: use it or lose it.

3. Diet

Eating appropriate daily amounts of at least seven of 12 healthy food items.

Researchers recorded participants’ daily intake of 12 healthy foods, including fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, dairy products, salt, oil, eggs, cereals, legumes, nuts, and tea. The more healthy choices participants made (in contrast to consuming processed foods, sugar, and other “unhealthy” foods), the better off their brains were.

4. Alcohol

Never drinking or drinking occasionally.

For alcohol, researchers recorded the current frequency and volume of alcohol consumption. Individuals were categorized into “never drinking” (never drank or drank occasionally), “low to excess drinking” (daily alcohol consumption of 1-60 grams, or about 1-4 drinks), and “heavy drinking” (daily alcohol consumption greater than 60 grams, or more than four drinks). Only “never drinking” was deemed a healthy lifestyle factor.

The fact is, hangovers happen for a reason. Trendy tannins aside, research consistently shows there’s nothing beneficial for you, physically, about alcohol. Mentally, that’s another question and a tradeoff to be reckoned with.

5. Smoking

Never having smoked or being a former smoker.

For smoking, participants were categorized as “smokes currently,” “never smoked “(participants who had smoked less than 100 cigarettes in their lifetime), and “smokes, or used to smoke” (participants who had quit smoking at least three years before). “Never” or “used to smoke” was deemed a healthy lifestyle factor.

In the 1950s, about half of Americans smoked cigarettes regularly. That number is down to just over 10% today, with good reason: cigarettes kill, and people have gotten wise to the fact, for the most part.

If you smoke, quit. Research shows the longterm effects of tobacco smoking recede with time.

6. Active social contact

Engaging with others at least twice a week.

Researchers monitored participants’ active social contacts, like attending community meetings or parties, visiting with friends and relatives, and traveling and chatting online. This category addressed the perennial problem of social isolation among older adults and demonstrated that the more socially engaged participants were, the more likely they stayed sharp.

Particularly after the isolation imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, engaging with others can be difficult. But take a page from your more social friends, and get out there, or at least get on your phone or computer. Being social has never been easier or more important for your mental health.

Check out these guides to wellness for tips on the healthy lifestyle factors in this study and more: 5 Life-Changing Steps for Healthy, Happy Aging from SAGE, and the Wellness Channel at AARP.

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