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  • Emma Rice

How Living Healthier Can Help Your Brain

When you hear a doctor or scientist talk about Alzheimer’s Disease (AD), you may hear them talk about “amyloid beta,” “phosphorylated tau,” or “hippocampal atrophy.” Amyloid-beta and tau are proteins in the brain that we believe to be involved in the development and progression of AD. As we age, our hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with memory, undergoes atrophy, or shrinkage. Our brains also accumulate misfolded proteins, including amyloid-beta and tau, as a part of normal aging. However, it is still a mystery what causes these natural processes to become problematic and result in Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline. This raises an important question for researchers: are there ways that we can protect our cognition and memory despite these natural biological processes?

A study done by Dr. Dhana and his colleagues at the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging with 586 participants sought to find out if living a healthy lifestyle could help maintain cognitive health, despite these changes with age. In the study, a lifestyle score was calculated for each participant to assess how “healthy” their lifestyle was. The scale for the score ranged from 0 to 5 (with higher scores meaning healthier lifestyle) and included factors like diet, smoking status, exercise levels, and alcohol consumption and were calculated based on years of data. Participants also underwent cognitive testing and once they passed away, their brains were examined to determine levels of amyloid-beta and tau. The researchers were able to compare the lifestyle scores to cognitive test scores and protein levels to determine if living a healthy lifestyle prevented cognitive decline and whether that was related to the amount of amyloid-beta and tau in the brain.

The researchers concluded that a higher lifestyle score was associated with better cognitive abilities into older age, regardless of the level of amyloid-beta and tau in the brain. This suggests that even if a person’s brain has accumulated proteins consistent with dementia, living healthier can help reduce the degree to which their cognition is affected. Although more studies need to be done, it is encouraging that we can nurture our brains and protect them against nature. Whether you’ve looked up some new recipes to eat more veggies or enrolled in a workout class, know that every step you take to live a healthier life is protecting your cognition as you age!


Study of Interest:

Dhana K, Et al. Healthy Lifestyle and Cognition in Older Adults With Common Neuropathologies of Dementia. JAMA Neurol. 2024;81(3):233-239. doi:10.1001/jamaneurol.2023.5491

Other References:

Reas ET. Amyloid and Tau Pathology in Normal Cognitive Aging. J Neurosci. 2017;37(32):7561-7563. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1388-17.2017

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