Lifestyle guidance prevents memory disorders

Extensive Finnish research has shown, for the first time, that healthy eating, exercise, and brain-training programme results in slower mental decline for older people. The results of the study were published in The Lancet.

A comprehensive programme providing older people at risk of dementia with healthy eating guidance, exercise, brain training, and management of metabolic and vascular risk factors appears to slow down cognitive decline, according to the first ever randomised controlled trial of its kind.

In the Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability (FINGER), researchers assessed the effects on brain function of a comprehensive intervention aimed at addressing some of the most important risk factors for age-related dementia, such as high body-mass index and heart health.

A total of 1,260 Finnish elderly participants were randomly divided into two groups, one of which was given standard lifestyle advice and the other intensive guidance. Intensive guidance included dietary instruction and participation in exercise activities and memory training, as well as support in managing the risk factors of cardiovascular diseases.

All of the study participants were deemed to be at risk of dementia, based on standardised test scores.

After two years, study participants’ mental function was scored using a standard test, the Neuropsychological Test Battery (NTB), where a higher score corresponds to better mental functioning.

Overall test scores in the intervention group were 25% higher than in the control group. For some parts of the test, the difference between groups was even more striking. 

The participants viewed the lifestyle guidance in a highly positive light. For example, good nutritionist raised interest in healthy nutrition even if the topic was already familiar to many.

– I feel that I benefited from the guidance. Although I no longer do the computer based memory training involved in the study, I have started doing crosswords. I've noticed that mental concentration revitalises me, says participant Jaana Elonen.

A practical model for the prevention of memory disorders

Progressive memory disorders pose a challenge for public health and the national economy. As the population ages, the number of people suffering from memory disorders will increase.

Professor Miia Kivipelto, the Research Director running the study, hopes that the onset of such disorders can be postponed by 5–10 years, through active lifestyle guidance.

– It has been estimated that the incidence of memory disorders worldwide could even be halved by such an approach. That would really be something.

The study participants will now be followed for at least seven years to determine whether the diminished cognitive decline seen in this trial is followed by reduced levels of dementia and Alzheimer’s diagnoses. The researchers will also be investigating possible mechanisms whereby the intervention might affect brain function.

FINGER (Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability) is being coordinated by the National Institute for Health and Welfare. The University of Eastern Finland, the University of Helsinki, the University of Oulu and the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden collaborated over the study.