“Be active, eat well”; we’ve heard how important it is to take care of ourselves. Living a healthy lifestyle can greatly improve how we feel and our quality of life. But how important is a healthy lifestyle? Previous studies have shown that leading a healthier lifestyle can extend life expectancy,1 but a new study claims it can also reduce the number of years spent living with dementia.2
Dementia is an international health concern
Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia impose huge social and economic strain on the healthcare system. In 2021, an estimated one in nine individuals in the U.S. aged 65 or older had dementia.3 Living with dementia requires extra resources including extra time from nurses and family members. The healthcare costs associated with dementia in 2021 were estimated at $355 billion in the U.S.4
If we can reduce the amount of time spent living with dementia, there would be a huge social and economic impact. It would improve the quality of life for those suffering and relieve healthcare staff, resources, and facilities.
The study claims that reducing time spent living with dementia may be as simple as leading a healthier lifestyle.2
What constitutes a “healthy” lifestyle?
The new study was published in the British Medical Journal. According to the research group, consisting of professionals from the United States and Switzerland, living a healthy lifestyle depends on exercising regularly, getting enough cognitive stimulation, and maintaining a well-balanced diet.2
2,449 people aged 65 or older from the southern Chicago area were included in the study. The average age of the participants was 76; there were 909 men and 1540 women included. Each participant was recruited through the Chicago Health and Aging Project, which collected population data between 1993 and 2012.5 Participants had no known history of dementia.2
Surveys were distributed to participants that evaluated their lifestyle choices. These questions measured five factors: smoking, alcohol consumption, diet, physical activity, and cognitive activities.2
Being exceptionally physically active was defined as greater or equal to 150 minutes per week. A “healthy diet” was defined as a Mediterranean-DASH diet; this diet incorporates high proportions of leafy greens and vegetables with low levels of saturated fats. Acceptable alcohol consumption was between 1-30g/day for men and 1-15g/day for women.
As lifestyle scores were calculated, influential variables were corrected for, including race, sex, education level, and genetic predisposition for dementia.
A healthier lifestyle can extend lifespan and time without dementia
The results of the study suggested that living a healthier lifestyle may increase life expectancy.2 For men at the age of 65 who lived the healthiest lifestyle, their life expectancy was 23.1 years. For men living the unhealthiest lifestyle, their life expectancy was 17.4 years at age 65. For women aged 65, those with the healthiest lifestyles had a life expectancy of 24.2 years and, for those with the unhealthiest lifestyles, theirs was 21.1 years.
Although those with healthier lifestyles were projected to have a longer life expectancy, these extra years did not correlate with more time living with dementia.
Specifically, for both men and women living the healthiest lifestyles, the time spent living with dementia was 10.8% and 6.1% of their remaining life, respectively.2 In comparison, the time spent living with dementia for men and women living the unhealthiest lifestyles was 19.3% and 12.0% of their remaining life, respectively.
That means that time spent living with dementia, as a percentage of remaining life, was reduced by almost half when healthier life choices were made.
HwaJung Choi, a research assistant professor with the University of Michigan, commented, “Promoting greater engagement in healthy lifestyles may increase dementia-free life years– by delaying the onset of dementia without extending life years spent with dementia”.6
She discussed the importance of incorporating these findings into programming to help delay the onset of dementia. She emphasized that reducing cases of dementia “is critically important in global efforts to reduce pressure on stressed healthcare systems, healthcare workers, and both paid and unpaid carers.” 6
- Li, Y. et al. (2018). Impact of Healthy Lifestyle Factors on Life Expectancies in the US Population. Circulation;138:345-55. doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.117.032047.
- Dhana, K. et al. (2022). Healthy lifestyle and life expectancy with and without Alzheimer’s dementia: population based cohort study. British Medical Journal; 377: e068390. Doi: 10.1136/bmj-2021-068390.
- Rajan, K.B. et al. (2021). Population estimate of people with clinical Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment in the United States (2020-2060). Alzheimer’s & Dementia; 17:1966-75. doi:10.1002/alz.12362.
- 2021 Alzheimer’s disease facts and figures. (2021). Alzheimer’s & Dementia;17: 327-406. Doi: 10.1002/alz.12328.
- Chicago Health and Aging Project (CHAP). (n.d.). dssNIAGADS. Accessed Apr. 19, 2022. Retrieved from https://dss.niagads.org/cohorts/chicago-health-and-aging-project-chap/.
- Choi, H. (2022). Healthy lifestyles and more life years without dementia. British Medical Journal; 377: o885. Doi: 10.1136/bmj.o885.
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