The FINGER study which came out of Sweden was a landmark study looking at reducing dementia risk by lifestyle changes. The randomized study was done over a two-year period with about 1200 individuals participating in the study.
The FINGER study found that making lifestyle changes, improving nutrition, increasing physical activity and mental activity can lower dementia risk.
The FINGER study focused on individuals over the age of 60 who were cognitively well. These individuals did not have dementia, though they may have had a minor cognitive impairment. While dementia risk was lowered, the individuals who were part of the increased mental activity saw improvements in processing speed and executive functioning. This study showed the positive effects of mental activity on improved brain health and mental acuity.
MAPT study vs. FINGER study
The interesting thing about these participants that set them apart from other studies was their relative youth (60 — 77 vs. 70 – 80+). In the MAPT study, which did not find the same improvements as the FINGER study, the participants were older. As well, one of the inclusion criteria for that study was frailty.
In the MAPT study individuals became participants through a health complaint. They had to have a reason for seeing the doctor. Once they were identified as having a health complaint they were put into the study. As well, the MAPT participants were older.
The research suggests that Alzheimer’s disease is starting in the brain decades before symptoms exhibit in the individual. This poses the question of whether or not early intervention in the 30s, 40s and 50s with prevention strategies would have the best outcomes?
One of the conclusions that can be drawn from a comparison of these two studies is that starting earlier on dementia prevention has a more positive effect than waiting until frailty indexes increase. Being proactive with your lifestyle changes and engaging in mentally challenging activities should be part of your overall wellness strategy for aging.
Another interesting aspect of the FINGER study was the reaction of individuals with the APOE 4 gene. The APOE 4 gene is a gene variant that predisposes an individual to develop Alzheimer’s disease at a 3 to 8 times greater rate than those who do not have the gene variant. The FINGER study found that individuals who have this gene variant actually have better outcomes than those who do not have the gene variant.
This enhanced outcome may occur for a variety of reasons. One of the most compelling reasons may be the motivation to take preventative steps when you know you have the gene variant. In my experience fear is a highly motivating factor. Even though we all know that taking care of our brain and heart through exercise, good nutrition and mental exercise is important, we often don’t change an accumulated series of habits that are not good for us. Making those changes often happens after a triggering event. Finding out that you have the APOE 4 gene can be such a triggering event.
The major takeaway from these trials is that genes are not your destiny. Even if you have a gene variant that pre-disposes you to Alzheimer’s disease, the FINGER study shows that you are not pre-destined to this fate.