brought to you by the Science Team at Peak

Keeping mentally fit via diet, exercise and cognitive training

What are the key elements for maintaining cognitive fitness?

As time goes on, this type of question increasingly occupies our thoughts. What and how much should we eat, sleep, exercise, and pursue cognitive activities in order to ensure health in the long term?

A recent European research study investigated the effects of a two year comprehensive intervention on cognition in elderly people from the general population. The program provided guidance for at-risk elderly people, in terms of nutrition, physical exercise, cognitive training (group and individual sessions with a psychologist), and computer-based brain training. The participants were 60–77 years of age, with a cardiovascular risk factor, an age cognition at mean level or slightly lower, and a risk of dementia.

This large, longitudinal, and randomized-controlled study showed that a multi-domain intervention (nutritional, physical and cognitive) could improve or maintain cognitive functioning in at-risk elderly people.

The intervention included oral and written information and advice on healthy diets, as well as physical, cognitive, and social activities that are beneficial for management of vascular risk factors and disability prevention.

The nutritional intervention was based on the Finnish Nutrition Recommendations. The nutritionists guided the participants in three individual sessions, and seven to nine group sessions. Individual sessions included tailoring of the participant’s diet. Group sessions provided discussions and practical exercises for assisting lifestyle changes.

The physical exercise training program followed international guidelines and represented a modified version of the Dose-Responses to Exercise Training protocol. The training was guided by physiotherapists at the gym, and consisted of individually tailored programmes for progressive muscle strength training (1–3 times per week) and aerobic exercise (2–5 times per week), including exercises to improve postural balance.

The cognitive training included group and individual sessions. The 10 group sessions were led by psychologists: six with educational content on age-related cognitive changes, memory, and reasoning strategies applied to everyday activities, and four sessions for checking progress in individual computer-based training, plus a visit to the local Alzheimer’s Association. Individual sessions consisted of computer-based training at home or at a study site, conducted in two periods of six months each; each including 72 training sessions (3 times per week, 10–15 min per session). The training programme was a web-based in-house developed computer program.

Management of metabolic and vascular risk factors included meetings with the study nurse and physician for measurements of blood pressure, weight and Body Mass Index (BMI), hip and waist circumference, physical examinations, blood samples, and recommendations for lifestyle management.

The researchers found that following the study the participants had significantly better overall cognitive functioning, executive functioning (cognitive processes, including reasoning and problem solving as well as planning and execution), and processing speed. Participants were tested on the Neu­ropsy­cho­log­i­cal Test Bat­tery (NTB), and scored 25% higher than the control group in the overall cognitive functioning, 83% higher in executive functioning, and 150% higher in processing speed. The Body Mass Index, dietary habits and physical activity measurements of the intervention group also improved significantly compared to the control group.

This study provides a novel and practical model for studies aiming to decrease cognitive decline that can be tested in other settings and populations.

What changes could you make in your life? Tell us in the comments below.

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