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We know that the health of your brain and your body are linked – people who exercise more and eat better are more likely to age well and reduce their risk of dementia. But once cognitive impairment (reduced brain function) is detected in an older person, is there anything they can do to improve their situation?

Any improvement is desirable, because cognitive impairment, even if it doesn’t reach the threshold of what’s considered dementia, is a risk factor for dementia down the track.

In this research, scientists found a group of 160 men and women who had mild cognitive impairment – they had reported memory loss and objective testing showed that while they were, on average, in their 60s, their brains functioned more like a 90-year-old’s.

These people were split into four separate groups and randomly assigned to different activities. One group undertook aerobic exercise three times a week for six months. Another group followed a particular diet, called the ‘DASH’ diet, which promotes fruits, vegetables and portion size control in an effort to reduce sodium levels and the risk of hypertension. A third group did both aerobic exercise and the DASH diet. A fourth underwent general health education to act as a control.

When they looked at the cognitive performance of each group six months later, they found that those who both exercised and ate more healthfully improved the most; they improved their ‘brain age’ by about nine years. By contrast, those in the control group got worse over the six month period, as you’d expect.

Diet didn’t seem to have a strong effect on cognitive improvement, but those who coupled exercise and healthful eating improved more than those who were in the group that just exercised without modifying diet.

Implications

What’s heartening about this randomised trial is that it seems to show it’s never too late to make a change in your lifestyle and reap the benefits of it. In an older group of people, regular exercise and dietary changes together improved their brain age almost a decade over just a six month period, which is a big result. Every step counts.

Last Reviewed: 02/02/2020

© Norman Swan Medical Communications.



References

For reference: Blumenthal, et al. (2019). Lifestyle and neurocognition in older adults with cognitive impairments: a randomized trial. Neurology doi: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000006784.