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Six Healthy Lifestyle Habits Linked to Slowed Memory Decline

by Batya Swift Yasgur, MA, LSW

Old couple walking on beach

A healthy lifestyle is associated with slower memory decline, even in the presence of the APOE ε4 allele. This study might offer important information to protect older adults against memory decline.


Once again, large-scale population data show that diet and 'lifestyle' are significant predictors of the risks for developing age-related cognitive decline and dementia.  Importantly, this was true whether or not individuals carried one of the common genetic variants (APOE4) known to increase risks for these conditions. 

Of the six main environmental factors identified, eating a 'healthy diet' was associated with the strongest protection against age-related cognitive impairment. But as usual, exercise, social connections, the avoidance of smoking or excessive alcohol use, and engaging in cognitively engaging activities were all predictors of better congitive health over a 10 year period.

As this was purely an observational study, no firm conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect, although the findings are consistent with other evidence.

What's more, the associations found were strikingly large - involving 90% risk reductions for those with the most favourable diets and lifestyles, and 30% for those with average versus 'unfavourable' scores.

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      • why the current worldwide decline in brain health was entirely predictable
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26/01/24 - Medscape


Adhering to six healthy lifestyle behaviors is linked to slower memory decline in older adults, a large, population-based study suggests.
Investigators found that a healthy diet, cognitive activity, regular physical exercise, not smoking, and abstaining from alcohol were significantly linked to slowed cognitive decline irrespective of APOE4 status.
After adjusting for health and socioeconomic factors, investigators found that each individual healthy behavior was associated with a slower-than-average decline in memory over a decade. A healthy diet emerged as the strongest deterrent, followed by cognitive activity and physical exercise.
"A healthy lifestyle is associated with slower memory decline, even in the presence of the APOE4 allele," study investigators led by Jianping Jia, MD, PhD, of the Innovation Center for Neurological Disorders and the Department of Neurology, Xuan Wu Hospital, Capital Medical University, Beijing, China, write.
"This study might offer important information to protect older adults against memory decline," they add.
The study was published online January 25 in The BMJ.

Preventing Memory Decline

Memory "continuously declines as people age," but age-related memory decline is not necessarily a prodrome of dementia and can "merely be senescent forgetfulness," the investigators note. This can be "reversed or [can] become stable," instead of progressing to a pathologic state.
Factors affecting memory include aging, APOE4 genotype, chronic diseases, and lifestyle patterns, with lifestyle "receiving increasing attention as a modifiable behavior."
Nevertheless, few studies have focused on the impact of lifestyle on memory; and those that have are mostly cross-sectional and also "did not consider the interaction between a healthy lifestyle and genetic risk," the researchers note.
To investigate, the researchers conducted a longitudinal study, known as the China Cognition and Aging Study, that considered genetic risk as well as lifestyle factors.
The study began in 2009 and concluded in 2019. Participants were evaluated and underwent neuropsychological testing in 2012, 2014, 2016, and at the study's conclusion.
Participants (n = 29,072; mean [SD] age, 72.23 [6.61] years; 48.54% women; 20.43% APOE4 carriers) were required to have normal cognitive function at baseline. Data on those whose condition progressed to mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or dementia during the follow-up period were excluded after their diagnosis.
The Mini–Mental State Examination was used to assess global cognitive function. Memory function was assessed using the World Health Organization/University of California–Los Angeles Auditory Verbal Learning Test.

"Lifestyle" consisted of six modifiable factors:

  • Physical exercise (weekly frequency and total time)

  • Smoking (current, former, or never-smokers)

  • Alcohol consumption (never drank, drank occasionally, low to excess drinking, and heavy drinking)

  • Diet (daily intake of 12 food items: fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, dairy products, salt, oil, eggs, cereals, legumes, nuts, tea)

  • Cognitive activity (writing, reading, playing cards, mahjong, other games)

  • Social contact (participating in meetings, attending parties, visiting friends/relatives, traveling, chatting online)

Participants' lifestyle was scored on the basis of the number of healthy factors they engaged in.

Participants were also stratified by APOE genotype into APOE4 carriers and noncarriers.

Demographic and other items of health information, including the presence of medical illness, were used as covariates. The researchers also included the "learning effect of each participant as a covariate, due to repeated cognitive assessments."

Important for Public Health

During the 10-year period, 7164 participants died, and 3567 stopped participating.

Participants in the favorable and average groups showed slower memory decline per increased year of age (0.007 [0.005 – 0.009], P < .001; and 0.002 [0 .000 – 0.003], P = .033 points higher, respectively), compared to those in the unfavorable group.

Healthy diet had the strongest protective effect on memory.

Memory decline occurred faster in APOE4 vs non-APOE4 carriers (0.002 points/year [95% CI, 0.001 – 0.003]; = .007).

But APOE4 carriers with favorable and average lifestyles showed slower memory decline (0.027 [0.023 – 0.031] and 0.014 [0.010 – 0.019], respectively), compared to those with unfavorable lifestyles. Similar findings were obtained in non-APOE4 carriers.

Those with favorable or average lifestyle were respectively almost 90% and 30% less likely to develop dementia or MCI, compared to those with an unfavorable lifestyle.

The authors acknowledge the study's limitations, including its observational design and the potential for measurement errors, owing to self-reporting of lifestyle factors. Additionally, some participants did not return for follow-up evaluations, leading to potential selection bias.

Nevertheless, the findings "might offer important information for public health to protect older against memory decline," they note — especially since the study "provides evidence that these effects also include individuals with the APOE4 allele."