If you’re a regular reader of this publication, you know we frequently report on new research regarding the importance of a healthy lifestyle to cognitive health.
Now, a new study from China’s Duke Kunshan University provides further evidence that a healthy lifestyle is in fact linked to better cognition for the oldest adults, regardless of genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Let’s take a closer look.
The research team examined data from 6,160 adults age 80 or older who had participated in the Chinese Longitudinal Healthy Longevity Survey, which is one of the world’s largest surveys on health and aging.
Xurui Jin and his colleagues were hunting for possible links between the gene APOE ε4, lifestyle, and cognition. As you’ve read here before, having the gene APOE ε4 increases your risk for Alzheimer’s disease and is also associated with an earlier disease onset.
The positive lifestyle factors that the team explored included not smoking, limiting alcohol, maintaining a healthy body weight, regular physical activity, and nutritious diet.
Healthy Lifestyles Equaled Healthier Brains
The researchers found that those people with healthy lifestyles were 55 percent less likely to have cognitive impairment than those with an unhealthy lifestyle.
Additionally, those with intermediately healthy lifestyles fared a bit worse, with a 28 percent lower risk compared to their unhealthy counterparts.
Perhaps most important, the analysis also revealed that the link between lifestyle and cognitive impairment did not vary significantly based on APOE ε4 status. In other words, your lifestyle choices are more important than your genetic status. I’ve long believed this to be true and I’m heartened to see it play out with certainty in such a large study.
That’s not to say the gene doesn’t matter at all. The study also found that the odds of cognitive impairment was 17 percent higher among APOE ε4 carriers versus noncarriers.
“Our results suggest the importance of a healthier lifestyle for cognition regardless of genetic dementia risk and increases our understanding of this relationship in the oldest older adults (80 years and older),” the authors wrote.
The cross-sectional study was published recently in the journal PLOS Medicine.
Never Too Late to Change Your Habits
What can we glean from these new findings? For “younger” readers, this research underscores the importance of committing to a healthy lifestyle for the long haul. For older readers, I’d reiterate that it’s never too late to make changes that can improve your physical and cognitive health.
But it’s not always easy to pivot in one’s later years.
Kristen Smith, a dietitian nutritionist and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, weighed in on this very topic.
“Making changes later in life can be more difficult when it comes to eating habits or exercise, but it can definitely be done,” Ms. Smith notes.
She says the key is to focus on lifestyle changes rather than losing weight or fad dieting. Also, Ms. Smith recommends making one or two small, achievable dietary changes at a time. It takes time to adjust to healthier food choices, but it’s worth it.
And you don’t need to become a gym rat to log in sufficient physical activity. Instead, find activities you enjoy and stick with them: walking, gardening, swimming, biking … the list is endless.
Need more motivation? Another study showed the benefits of adopting a healthy lifestyle in later years.
Dana King, lead author of this study, emphasizes that modest lifestyle changes can still reap tangible benefits.
“You can still improve your health status, even if you don’t start working on your habits until quite late in life,” he says. “Any or all can make a big difference; it’s never too late.”
Remember, the sooner you start making these lifestyle changes, the better!