A recent study could lead to government-funded lifestyle programs to help at-risk seniors improve cognition and reduce their risk of Alzheimer’s, subject to future studies.
The initial study by the Australian National University (ANU) tracked 119 people aged over 65 as they made positive lifestyle changes over a six-month period. All participants had experienced some cognitive decline prior to the study.
Participants were given an eight-week education program covering lifestyle risk factors for Alzheimer’s and topics such as the Mediterranean diet, exercise, and brain training. One group of participants was instructed to change their lifestyles independently. The other group received specialist support to make changes to diet and exercise and engage in brain training activities.
The study found that the group that received support had significantly lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and improved cognition after six months, compared with the group that was left to their own devices.
“This was a “proof of concept study”, showing that the intervention seems to work in an effort to secure more research funding,” said ANU PhD candidate Mitchell McMaster, who lead the study.
Mr McMaster said the findings could lead to government-funded programs helping older people make lifestyle changes to improve cognition and reduce their risk of Alzheimer’s.
“You’d probably run it from somewhere like a GP clinic or a private practice that has exercise physiologists and dietitians, and that way you could target the people who are high-risk and reduce their risk in the long term,” Mr McMaster said.
So, what’s the next step?
Mr McMaster said the next step would be a longer-term study with more participants, followed by a “pilot study”.
“We’d probably run a smaller (pilot) study in a GP clinic that has a dietitian and an exercise physiologist, and see what the results are in the real world. It’s a bit of a difference running it from a very controlled environment in academia to people living their life in the real world.”
“You want to be sure before you spend a lot of public money that you are actually getting the results in the real world.”
What lifestyle changes improve cognition?
Participants who received support were guided by dietitians to change to a Mediterranean diet. Exercise physiologists helped participants to increase their exercise to between two to three hours of moderate exercise per week.
“Informally getting feedback from participants, they did quite enjoy the study,” Mr McMaster said.
“They really enjoyed the training and diet, they found it quite tasty and felt better eating it. Some of them lost weight but that wasn’t our actual aim.”
Mr McMaster said participants mentioned the professional support helped motivate them to exercise. “A lot of them were saying, “You know, with exercise and that sort of thing, you know you should be doing it”. But this just gave them that little extra push, a little bit of incentive to help with the exercise.”
Brain training was not as popular. “Some enjoyed it, some didn’t quite enjoy it!” Mr McMaster said.
“I think it was just the fact that we were asking them to do four tasks per week, for quite a long time. They might have got a bit bored with it. So if we were going to run the study again it’s probably something we would change up a little bit.”
The study was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.