A Study of Lifestyle and Cognitive Functioning in Older Adults

A Study of Lifestyle and Cognitive Functioning in Older Adults

New insights into healthy aging

A recent study offers a new perspective on the relationship between lifestyle and cognitive function in older adults. It suggests that maintaining a healthy lifestyle can enhance cognitive abilities, even in the presence of Alzheimer’s or other dementia-related pathologies. This revelation highlights the potential impact of healthy habits on cognitive health in later life and opens a new avenue for strategies aimed at maintaining cognitive well-being.

Methodology & Study Findings

The study, conducted by Klodian Dhana, MD, PhD, of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, used data from the Rush Memory and Aging Project, which provided up to 24 years of follow-up and autopsy data. The dataset included 586 decedents who had undergone diet and lifestyle assessments, near-death cognitive examinations, and postmortem findings. Lifestyle factors assessed included adherence to the MIND diet, end-of-life cognitive activity scores, no smoking, moderate or vigorous exercise for at least 150 minutes per week, and light to moderate alcohol intake. The study found that a higher lifestyle score was associated with better cognitive function and a lower burden of beta-amyloid in the brain, regardless of the presence of dementia-related pathologies.

Healthy lifestyle score and cognitive function

A healthy lifestyle score was developed based on self-reported factors such as not being a current smoker, being physically active, limiting alcohol consumption, and having a healthy diet. The study found that a higher lifestyle score was associated with better global cognitive function near death. This means that in older adults, a healthy lifestyle may provide a cognitive reserve to maintain cognitive abilities independent of the common neuropathologies of dementia.

The effect of lifestyle on cognitive health

The study suggests that living a healthy lifestyle focusing on a nutritious diet, regular exercise, minimal alcohol consumption and other healthy habits can help keep the brain sharp into old age. For every 1-point increase in healthy lifestyle score, there was 0.120 unit less beta-amyloid burden in the brain and 0.22 standard unit higher score in cognitive performance. These cognitive benefits remained independent of the presence of neurological conditions.

Implications for dementia prevention

With over 55 million people worldwide affected by Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, and an estimated economic burden of over 800 billion annually, there is a critical need for prevention strategies that target modifiable risk factors. The study by Dhana et al. report a strong association between a healthy lifestyle composite score and cognitive function near death, independent of the burden of dementia pathology. It emphasizes the need for future studies to elucidate the mechanisms linking risk factors and cognition and the importance of a life course approach to understanding the causal nature and early impact of modifiable risk factors for dementia prevention.


The study concludes that a healthy lifestyle can provide cognitive benefits even for people who have begun to accumulate dementia-related pathologies. It marks an important step in understanding ways to modify lifestyle to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, and urges the need for more well-designed clinical trials to generate concrete evidence. The findings highlight the potential of lifestyle modifications to promote healthy aging and manage cognitive health in dementia-related conditions.

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