4 Changes That May Help Slow Alzheimer’s Progression

June 24, 2024

Changing your lifestyle in four key areas may help to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, a new report suggests. The study found that people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s showed less decline in thinking and memory skills when they followed an intensive program of diet, exercise, stress management and social support. Some showed improvements in cognitive skills or reported doing better in daily functioning.
The study was led by Dr. Dean Ornish, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. Earlier research by Dr. Ornish’s group had shown that changes in diet, exercise, social interaction and stress management can improve outcomes in people with heart disease. The current study examined the effects of similar rigorous lifestyle changes on brain health.
The study was small, involving 49 older men and women with serious memory problems. Some were in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, others had mild cognitive impairment, a memory-related brain disorder that can progress to full-blown Alzheimer’s. Their average age was 73. 
The researchers randomly divided participants into two groups. Half followed a lifestyle intervention program for 20 weeks. The others continued with their regular diet, lifestyle and exercise routines and served as controls. Both groups were tested for thinking and memory skills at the beginning and end of the study.
Those in the lifestyle change group followed an intensive program that included: 
  • Dietary changes. Participants were supplied with three vegan meals a day, plus snacks, consisting of whole and minimally processed plant-based foods, low levels of saturated fats, and minimal refined carbohydrates. The diet was rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, soy products, seeds and nuts. In addition, they got daily nutritional supplements that included omega-3 fatty acids and a multivitamin.
  • Exercise. Participants got at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise a day; most of them walked. In addition, they did mild strength training using weights at least three times a week.
  • *Stress management. Trainers led daily, hour-long group sessions that included meditation, yoga, and breathing and relaxation exercises.
  • *Support groups. Participants met with others to share thoughts and emotional concerns three times a week for an hour. Sessions were led by a trained therapist.
After 20 weeks, 17 of the 24 people who completed the diet and lifestyle changes either stabilized or showed improvements in their cognitive and functioning scores. The more closely participants adhered to the regimen, the better the results. Some patients reported that after following the program, they were better able to read books, do their finances, or play a musical instrument. 
In contrast, none of the patients in the control group showed improvements. Eight of them showed no changes, while 17 got worse. The findings were published in the journal Alzheimer’s Research and Therapy.
Earlier studies have shown that lifestyle changes, including eating a heart-healthy diet and getting regular exercise, can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in healthy people. This study suggests that lifestyle changes may also have benefits in people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s or those with mild cognitive impairment who are at high risk of developing the disease.
To be sure, the benefits were modest, and following such measures won’t cure Alzheimer’s or stop the downward progression of disease. The program was also intensive and may be hard for many people to follow. But the findings suggest that changing the routine to include taking a daily walk, spending more time with friends, or eating more heart-healthy, plant-based meals may be beneficial for anyone with early Alzheimer’s disease or other serious memory problems. 
By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Eric Schmidt, Ph.D. Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University. 
Source: Dean Ornish, Catherine Madison, Miia Kivipelto, et al: “Effects of intensive lifestyle changes on the progression of mild cognitive impairment or early dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease: a randomized, controlled clinical trial.” Alzheimer’s Research and Therapy, June 7, 2024

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