When 73-year-old Bob Gardiner took part in a study which looked at whether diet and exercise could reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, his biggest fear was “losing [his] marbles”.
- ANU researchers put participants aged over 65 with some cognitive function decline into two study groups
- The two groups spent six months making lifestyle changes in diet, exercise and brain training, either supported by specialists or independently
- Those given the extra help were found to have a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and improved cognitive abilities
The Canberran was one of 119 research participants in a study conducted by the Australian National University (ANU), which found that older people already in cognitive decline can reduce their risk of Alzheimer’s disease with supported diet and exercise.
“I have always been very concerned to keep my cognitive faculties going,” Mr Gardiner said.
“My great fear would be to lose those.”
But in the six-month program, he lost nearly seven kilograms of body weight as he got back into exercising regularly, and stuck to the program’s compulsory Mediterranean diet, which mainly consisted of fruit, vegetables, fish, nuts and legumes, and olive oil.
“I was more active and feeling more active,” Mr Gardiner said.
“The food helped big time.”
When help is given, Alzheimer’s risk reduces
The ANU’s “proof-of-concept study” saw researchers track participants as they spent six months making positive lifestyle changes.
The participants were all aged 65 years or older, and had been experiencing some decline in their cognitive function previously.
Half the participants had support throughout the six months from specialist coaches, while the other half completed online education to change their lifestyles independently.
The study found that people given help experienced a significantly lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and improvement in cognitive abilities, compared with those who were not given the extra support.
“What it shows is that if you give people that extra assistance, you can get the results that you need,” said program creator and ANU PhD candidate Mitchell McMaster.
“It is a really good indication that if you modify your lifestyle, there is still hope to reduce dementia risk, which is a really exciting finding for this field of study.”
Mr Gardiner, who was in the group that received support, was not surprised by Mr McMaster’s findings.
“If you are allowed to go your own way, I know what I am like,” Mr Gardiner said.
“My dietician and physiologist took no rubbish at all and the gym manager would look at me and tell me to get on with it.”
So how does the program work?
ANU researchers conducted tests to come up with a measure of “global cognition”.
“We had a range of tests, neuropsychological tests,” Mr McMaster explained.
“We combined those to get a measure of global cognition, [which is] a combination of all the different cognitive functions, like your memory and processing speed.”
With an exercise physiologist, participants increased exercise routines to between two and three hours of moderate exercise a week, such as cycling, swimming or walking.
Participants also did brain training exercises designed to improve memory function.
Researchers then measured changes in each participants using the standardised tests — a change of two points meant a significant increase in quality of health and led to less chance of dementia.
“We were able to change it by two-and-a-half points, which is equal to low-to-moderate exercise,” Mr McMaster said.
He hoped his initial findings would lead to a longer-term study.
“This was a proof-of-concept study, where you prove an idea that appears to be working in the short-term to get funding for a larger study to provide more conclusive proof,” Mr McMaster said.
Mr McMaster’s PhD scholarship was supported by the Dementia Australia Research Foundation and Neuroscience Research Australia.
The study is published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.