Neurodegenerative disease is often seen as a death sentence — but heartening new research finds that even after symptoms start to show, there are still ways to fight back.
As CNN reports, a fascinating new study conducted by Rush University researchers showed that introducing healthy lifestyle habits helped to lower symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer's disease in patients already exhibiting warning signs.
Dementia, Alzheimer's, and similar neurodegenerative diseases are devastating conditions that largely remain without a cure. And though the results of this study, published Monday in the journal JAMA Neurology, certainly don't show a cure for Alzheimer's or dementia, they do offer compelling evidence that lifestyle changes could offer a potent stopgap — even in cases where telltale markers like beta-amyloid or tau plaques are already present in a patient's brain.
"We found that the lifestyle-cognition association was independent of Alzheimer's disease pathology burden," Rush Institute for Healthy Aging assistant professor of geriatrics and palliative medicine Klodian Dhana, the lead author on the study, told CNN, suggesting that a healthy "lifestyle may provide cognitive benefits even for people who have begun to accumulate dementia-related pathologies in their brains."
The study results are based on observations and autopsies of a total of 586 participants, all of whom lived in the Chicago area and took part in the Rush Memory and Aging Project between the years 1997 and 2022. Per CNN, the participants lived to an "average age of 91, underwent regular cognitive and physical testing, and filled out annual questionnaires on their lifestyles for over two decades before they died."
Using the self-reported data from the Memory and Aging Project, researchers devised a criteria-based system to determine whether the participants lived lower-risk, healthy lifestyles or had higher-risk habits.
Per the study, those deemed low-risk had a few significant lifestyle choices in common. For one — and likely very obvious — thing, these participants didn't smoke. They also consumed alcohol in moderation, meaning roughly one or fewer daily drinks for women or roughly two or fewer for men, and exercised for "at least 150 minutes a week." On a regular weekly basis, these individuals also engaged in mentally stimulating activities — according to the study, this would include activities like reading, afternoons at museums, or playing board games and puzzles. Finally, those deemed "healthy" were observed to adhere fairly closely to the Mediterranean-DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, or "MIND" diet for short.
The MIND diet isn't new; it was devised by researchers at Rush and Harvard's School of Public Health in Boston back in 2015. Rooted in elements of the "Mediterranean" diet and the hypertension-fighting DASH diet, MIND centers on lowering an individual's blood pressure and cholesterol while emphasizing the consumption of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats from sources like olive oil and nuts, and whole grains. Fish is encouraged, but cholesterol-spiking red meat is confined to an occasional treat. Sodium is also kept to a minimum, and to all of our dessert lovers, we apologize but sugar, especially processed sugar, is mostly off the table.
Armed with decades of data points, the Rush researchers compared lifestyle scores against the results of each participant's eventual autopsy after they died. During the autopsies, scientists looked for certain signs of neurodegenerative conditions, including the aforementioned plaque build-up in addition to any vascular damage in the brain — and when lifestyle scores and brain pathology were taken into consideration together, the results were striking.
According to the study, those living lower-risk lifestyles were shown to have less severe pathological signs of neurodegenerative disease overall. What's more, though, was the discovery that nearly 90 percent of the participants' cognitive health was in direct correlation to living choices; conversely, only 11.6 percent of the elders' cognition was directly impacted by pathological factors like beta-amyloid or vessel damage.
In other words, it looks like living well carried far more weight for their cognitive health than any measurable signs of neurodegeneration did.
"It's like a video game where you are shooting monsters," Richard Isaacson, who serves as the director of research at Florida's Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases in Florida and who was not involved in the study, told CNN of the discovery. "The gun —the lifestyle changes — was able to defeat the ghosts, ghouls, goblins, vampires and zombies."
While the research is exciting, there are a few caveats, most notably the reality that the MIND diet isn't accessible to everyone. Eating well is expensive and often challenging, and food deserts are rampant throughout the US. These challenges fall disproportionately on low-income families and minorities; meanwhile, Black and Latinx people are more likely to develop Alzheimer's and dementia, and yet remain woefully underdiagnosed. If healthy, plant-forward, and unprocessed diets are indeed medicine, many Americans, particularly those who aren't white and middle-class, continue to be left out.
The study was also based heavily on self-reported data, which comes with its own risks. But the study does add to the growing body of research linking diet and lifestyle to neurodegenerative disease. So in the future, when you're trying to decide between salmon or a double-stacked bacon cheeseburger for dinner, just remember — by making the switch, you could be bulking up your brain's resilience to harrowing diseases.
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