March 16, 2015

Study Confirms: Even Seniors Already at Risk for Alzheimer’s Benefit from Lifestyle Changes

The first-ever properly randomized, controlled trial has shown that a comprehensive program -- diet, exercise, information -- over two years actually slowed cognitive decline in seniors already at risk for dementia. Results from the Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability (FINGER) were published in "The Lancet" on March 11.

Researchers from Sweden and Finland -- after screening 2,654 seniors over two years -- recruited 1,269 Finns, aged 60-77. All of them showed dementia risk, based on results of standardized tests. Half of them were assigned to the “intervention” group, and the rest were assigned to the control group.

What “Intervention” Included
For over two years, study participants in the “intervention” group – not the control group – met regularly with health professionals who provided advice about healthy eating, muscle and cardiovascular training, mental exercises, and using data – including blood test results – to mitigate metabolic and vascular risk factors.
After two years counseling and encouraging the seniors in the active half of the study, the Scandinavian researchers assessed the mental function of all the study participants.

Using the standardized Neuropsychological Test Battery, the scientists determined that – on average – the intervention group performed about 25% better than the control group.

Several areas of mental function improved dramatically after the two-year period of “comprehensive advice” for the intervention group. They scored 83% higher than their control-group counterparts on executive function -- ability to organize and regulate thought processes – and a whopping150% higher on processing speed.

The Study Continues
To expand their conclusions, the researchers will continue to follow the progress of all study participants for at least seven more years. That way, they’ll be able to determine whether future Alzheimer’s and other dementia diagnoses vary between the two study groups.

The study conclusions aren’t especially surprising, but they put the imprimatur of scientific study on the “common wisdom” we’ve held for a long time: that lifestyle changes – especially the old standbys of diet and exercise – make a difference on cognitive function, even for people at risk for decline.

Miia Kivipelto – professor at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, and lead author on this study, put it this way:

Much previous research has shown that there are links between cognitive decline in older people and factors such as diet, heart health and fitness. However, our study is the first large randomized controlled trial to show that an intensive program aimed at addressing these risk factors might be able to prevent cognitive decline in elderly people who are at risk of dementia.

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Results from this "FINGER" study were reported in various outlets, including:

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