Michael Hunter, MD on Medika Life

Six Health Habits to Slow Memory Decline

ACCORDING TO A NEW POPULATION-BASED STUDY, six healthy lifestyle behaviors are associated with slower memory decline in older adults. Here are six healthy habits to slow memory decline:

  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Getting cognitive activity
  • Engaging in physical activity
  • Not smoking
  • Avoiding alcohol
  • Having social contact

These lifestyle factors appear beneficial, irrespective of whether a person has APOE4, a gene that may increase dementia risk.

The research study authors note that “memory continuously declines as people age,” but age-related memory loss is not necessarily an early symptom (prodrome) predictive of dementia. Some memory loss is reversible or can be rendered stable rather than progressing to a pathologic state.

Today, we explore six important lifestyle maneuvers to lower the risk of cognitive decline among older adults.

“Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe: it gives back life to those who no longer exist.”
― Guy de Maupassant

Six health habits and memory support

Numerous factors influence memory, including aging, chronic diseases, APOE4 genotype, and lifestyle patterns. Let’s look at the last, a potentially modifiable risk factor for memory loss.

Many historical studies did not consider the interaction between a healthy lifestyle and genetic risk. In this context, researchers did a longitudinal study: The China Cognition and Aging Study considered genetic risk and lifestyle factors.

Photo by Harli Marten on Unsplash

The study included over 29,000 individuals with an average age of 72 years. Only half were women, and 20 percent of the population carried the APOE4 gene.

Each participant did a Mini-Mental State Examination to assess global cognitive function. Participants completed the World Health Organization/University of California-Los Angeles Auditory Verbal Learning Test to assess memory function.

The researchers collected demographic information. Finally, the scientists examined six modifiable lifestyle factors:

  1. Physical activity (weekly frequency and total time)
  2. Smoking (current versus former versus never-smoker)
  3. Alcohol use (never, occasional, low to excess, and heavy)
  4. Diet (daily consumption of 12 food items, including fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, dairy, salt, oil, eggs, cereals, legumes, nuts, and tea)
  5. Cognitive activity (reading, writing, playing cards, mahjong, or other games)
  6. Social contact (meeting participation, attending parties, visiting friends or relatives, chatting online, or traveling).

The researchers scored the subjects’ lifestyles based on the number of health factors in which they engaged. They regarded those with four to six healthy habits as “favorable.” Those with two or three healthy factors were “average.” Finally, researchers scored those with only one healthy factor as “unfavorable.”

“I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later; thus, we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.”
― Virginia Woolf

Six health habits and memory support — Study results

Here are the results during the ten-year study period:

  • Seven thousand one hundred sixty-four died, and 3567 stopped participating.
  • A healthy diet offered the strongest protective effect on memory.
  • Those in the good and average groups exhibited slower memory decline with age than those in the unfavorable group.

APOE4 gene carriers and memory decline

Memory loss happened faster in APOE4 carriers (versus non-carriers). However, APOE4 carriers with favorable and average lifestyles had slower memory drops than those with unfavorable lifestyles. Researchers discovered similar findings in non-APOE4 carriers.

Individuals with a favorable or average lifestyle were almost 90 percent and 30 percent, respectively, to develop dementia or mild cognitive impairment than those with an unfavorable lifestyle.

Those with favorable or average lifestyles appeared to be 90 and 30 percent less likely to develop dementia or MCI than those with unfavorable lifestyles.

Six health habits and memory support — My take

The study has a major limitation — it is observational and does not establish a cause-and-effect relationship. Perhaps people with better cognitive function are more likely to be social or travel, read, write, or play challenging games.

Moreover, some participants didn’t return for follow-up, creating potential selection bias. Finally, the differences in memory retention between the groups appeared small.

Nevertheless, the study offers hints as to how we might try to reduce our chances of suffering from cognitive decline, whether we have the APOE4 allele or not. I wish the research also included information about poor sleep hygiene, a lifestyle characteristic associated with memory decline.


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Michael Hunter, MD
Michael Hunter, MD
I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.

Michael Hunter, MD

I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.

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