A healthy lifestyle can lower dementia risk, even among those with a family history of cognitive decline, according to a study presented Thursday during an American Heart Association conference held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This includes eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, not smoking or drinking alcohol to excess and maintaining good sleep habits and a healthy body weight, the researchers said during the Epidemiology, Prevention, Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health Conference.
Adults ages 50 to 73 who embrace at least three of the behaviors can reduce their dementia risk by 30%, the data showed.
Those with a family history of dementia who followed at least three of the behaviors had a 25% to 35% reduced risk for the condition compared to those who followed two or fewer.
“When dementia runs in a family, both genetics and non-genetic factors, such as dietary patterns, physical activity and smoking status, affect an individual’s overall risk,” study co-author Angelique Brellenthin said in a press release.
However, the findings suggest “there may be opportunities for reducing risk by addressing those non-genetic factors,” said Brellenthin, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University in Ames.
Having a close relative with dementia, such as a parent or sibling, can increase a person’s risk for the disease by nearly 75% compared to those with no family history, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Older age and high blood pressure, high cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes and depression also can increase a person’s risk for the condition, Brellenthin and her colleagues said.
For this study, the researchers analyzed health information on more than 302,000 adults ages 50 to 73 years who were free of dementia at the beginning of the study and filled out questionnaires about family health history and lifestyle habits.
Participants were given one point for each of six healthy lifestyle behaviors they followed.
These included eating a healthy diet with more fruits and vegetables and less processed meat and refined grains; meeting national exercise guidelines by engaging in 150 or more minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each week; and sleeping 6 to 9 hours each day.
They also received one point for drinking alcohol in moderation, not smoking and not being obese.
Participants’ health then was monitored for an average of about eight years.
Nearly 1,700, or 0.6%, of the participants developed dementia during that period, the data showed. Those with a family history of dementia had a nearly 70% higher risk for dementia compared to those who did not.
Following all six healthy lifestyle behaviors reduced participants’ risk for dementia by nearly one-half, compared to those who followed two or fewer healthy behaviors.
The results suggest that starting with small changes, such as engaging in at least three or more healthy lifestyle behaviors, can significantly lower a person’s risk for dementia, according to the researchers.
“This study provides important evidence that a healthy lifestyle can have a positive impact on brain health,” American Heart Association president Dr. Mitchell S.V. Elkind said in a press release.
“It should be reassuring and inspiring to people to know that following just a few healthy behaviors can delay cognitive decline, prevent dementia and preserve brain health,” said Elkind, a professor of neurology and epidemiology at Columbia University in New York City who was not part of Brellenthin’s study.