Two Weeks of Lifestyle Changes Improve Cognitive Function

Caroline Cassels

July 25, 2006

July 25, 2006 — Simple lifestyle changes, including memory exercises, daily exercise, relaxation techniques, and a healthy diet, significantly improve cognitive function and brain efficiency in as little as 2 weeks, a small pilot study suggests.

"We put people on a 2-week healthy-lifestyle program and compared them with a control group told to maintain their normal routine. In a very brief time we observed highly significant changes in brain function as measured by positron emission tomography [PET] in the intervention group, but no change in the control group," the study's principal investigator, Gary Small, MD, from the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Medscape.

The study is published in the June issue of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

For the study, 17 healthy volunteers aged 35 to 69 years with mild age-related memory complaints were recruited. Subjects were then randomly assigned to the intervention group, which combined a healthy diet plan, relaxation exercises, cardiovascular conditioning, and mental exercise that included brainteasers and verbal memory training techniques. The control group was simply instructed to maintain their normal routine.

Mental Calisthenics

Subjects in the intervention group were told to take brisk daily walks and incorporate daily brief relaxation exercises into their routine. They were also given shopping lists and a menu guide to facilitate a healthy diet plan, which included 5 meals per day high in fruits and vegetables, omega-3 fats, and low-glycemic-index carbohydrates.

Intervention subjects were also instructed to incorporate brainteasers and mental puzzles into their daily routine as well as specific memory training techniques to help focus attention and improve visualization and association skills to improve retention and recall.

Baseline and follow-up assessments in all study subjects included a multitrial verbal learning and memory test and a word-generation test. In addition, individuals also completed the Memory Functioning Questionnaire 64-item instrument that measures frequency of forgetting, seriousness of forgetting, changes in current memory compared with past memory, and mnemonics use. In addition, all subjects underwent PET imaging.

Brain Function

Mean baseline subjective and objective cognitive measures did not differ significantly between the 2 groups. However, at follow-up, the intervention group's verbal fluency improved significantly, whereas the control group's did not.

In addition, subjects in the intervention group showed a 5% decrease in left dorsolateral prefrontal activity compared with baseline, whereas the control group showed no significant change in brain metabolism.

"The decrease in brain metabolism in participants who followed the healthy longevity program suggests the brain functioned more efficiently and didn't require as much glucose to perform effectively," said Dr. Small.

Based on these results, Dr. Small and his team are planning a much larger study of approximately 150 patients age 60 to 80 years that will assess the effects of each lifestyle strategy.

Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2006;14:538-545.


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