One of the earliest studies which opened the door to examining the factors which may be pivotal in dementia was the so called 'Nun Study' by David Snowden. This hallmark study, which spanned the years of 1991 - 2002, measured the physical performance and cognitive function among 678 Catholic Sisters of the Notre Dame in Minnesota, ages 75 to 107. The sisters also consented to post-mortem brain autopsy to determine if the tangles and plaques of Alzheimers Disease were present. Snowden's findings included the following: education, physical activity, early life experience, diet and attitude all played a role in preventing the development of dementia. But perhaps more importantly, even if Alzheimers was confirmed by autopsy, some sisters never had symptoms of the disease - they seemed to develop a 'cogntive reserve', a protective brain adaptation which allowed them to maintain physical and cognitive function. Certain behaviors appeared the enhance the development of this cognitive reserve, including physical activity, learning new skills, and having an optimistic outlook on life.
More recent studies include a 2012 cross-sectional study by Lui and colleagues with over 60,000 subjects ages 20 to 88. Results showed a 14 % drop in dementia-related mortality for every 1 MET increase in aerobic capacity. (MET is a unit of exercise physiology which can be used to determine the cardiopulmonary fitness of an individual.) In 2011, Erickson compared hippocampal volume ( the memory center of the brain) in elderly adults without dementia. Comparing a walking program to one limited to stretching and toning, the study showed increased hippocampal volume for the walkers but improvements on memory task performance for both groups.
This past year, a two year interventional study in Finland was completed. FINGER ( Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive impairment and Disability - now you know why they called it FINGER!) included 1200 subjects ages 60 - 77. Half of the participants were enrolled in the intervention, which included aerobic and strength exercise, nutritional guidance, cognitive training, social interaction and management of metabolic and vascular risk factors. At the completion of the study, this group showed a 25 % improvement in cognitive score versus the control group.
So what are we waiting for? Is it time for those who are determined to improve their odds against developing dementia to begin a lifestyle modification program? Consider the impact on your quality of life, on the future life of children and family, and even on the fiscal burden on your grandchildren. Simple steps and wise choices have the potential to have powerful impact on the future.
I invite all those who see this potential for change and intervention to join me in the Legacy Project, a grass-roots campaign to adopt lifestyle habits and behaviors to enhance physical and mental wellness. In the weeks to come, I will be launching the BRAIN PRESERVER Program , a step-by step program designed to build on the finding of these recent studies and to build your own personal program to prevent or delay dementia. Please visit the Legacy Project page at www.encorefitwell.com to sign up for more information!