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Published on: July 15, 2014
by Matthew Herper for Forbes:
Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most feared diagnoses among patients. It destroys people’s minds, their personalities, the very essence of who they are. And once the disease has been diagnosed, there is nothing modern medicine can do to stop it.
But it can be slowed, and a new study presented by researchers at the Karolinska Institut in Sweden gives some of the strongest evidence yet as to how: through physical exercise, through mental exercises and social interaction, by eating a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and by monitoring the same risk factors that lead to cardiovascular disease.
The bad news: Alzheimer’s, in people who develop it, is still inexorable. The good news: even for people late in life who are already at high risk for developing the disease can benefit from changing their lifestyle. Patients in this study were between 60 years and 77 years old.
“This is a very important message,” says Miia Kivipelto, the lead investigator of the study who presented the results at the annual meeting of the Alzheimer’s Association. “It’s still possible to do something for your brain when you are 70 years old.”
The Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability (somehow abbreviated FINGER) followed 1,260 patients in Finland who were at high risk of dementia and had cognitive performance that was either average for their age or worse for two years. They were randomly assigned into two groups. One, a control group, received the best medical advice available and regular cognitive testing. The other group got a battery of interventions.
Among the treatments:
The benefit of these interventions was measured with a battery of tests for memory, executive function, and the speed at which patients could think. Right now, the overall measure for the study isn’t very informative, Kivipelto says, because it combines so many different tests into one. But what’s clear is that after two years of treatment, there was a statistically significant overall benefit.
This benefit remained when researchers looked individually at memory, executive function, and psychomotor speed. On executive function and psychomotor speed, Kivipelto says, the control group was actually stable, perhaps because they too were getting extra medical care. But the patients getting the treatments actually significantly improved.
“For the past few years, physical exercise (min 3 sessions/wk X 30 min/session) has been as good or better than anything that we can recommend for people with or at risk for cognitive decline. Would that we had a pill as good as that but we do not,” writesSamuel Gandy, Director, Mount Sinai Center for Cognitive Health and NFL Neurological Center, via email after reviewing the results. He says he’s “prepared to believe” that extending beyond exercise could add additional benefits.
One big question that will need to be answered by further analyses: how did the different components of treatment impact patients’ mental health? Will these treatments work as well in Ohio as they did in Sweden? And what are the long-term results of exercising the body and brain? The study will continue to follow patients for seven years to try to get some of those answers.
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