Exploring the mental magic of diet and exercise

Australian researchers have embarked on a large clinical trial to explore the benefits of a Mediterranean-style diet and walking-based exercise for staving off dementia, a debilitating and escalating condition that is notoriously hard to treat once it sets in.

The study, to be run across 28 residential facilities in South Australia and Victoria, aims to strengthen the evidence base for reducing dementia risk using lifestyle factors. It builds on encouraging results from the team’s preliminary research.

“Early pilots of our MedWalk intervention show improved memory and thinking in a subgroup of older participants adhering to a combination of Mediterranean diet and walking daily for six months,” says Associate Professor Karen Murphy, lead scientist from the University of South Australia.

“We’re now extending this study across a broader group of older Australians, using carefully designed behavioural change and maintenance strategies in the hope of substantially reducing the incidence of dementia across Australia.”


What does it involve?

A traditional Mediterranean-style diet – high in plant foods such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes, along with generous quantities of extra virgin olive oil and oily fish and little if any processed sugary foods or meat – has myriad established health benefits.

This includes a very strong evidence base for heart health, which is closely related to cognitive health: a legacy of stiff arteries.

Likewise, exercise has been abundantly linked to reduced risk of chronic disease – which is worrying given that people are now less active than ever. Even slow walkers age faster than people who stride along at a good pace.

Participants who sign up for the study – co-run by Professor Andrew Pipingas at Swinburne University in Melbourne – will be allocated to an intensive intervention or to continue life as normal and compared on an array of different outcomes including mood, heart health, cognition, wellbeing, depression, gut microbiome and inflammation.


Keeping the change

As well as showing long term benefits over two years, the team aims to help participants maintain healthier lifestyle behaviours, as follow-ups of their previous 6-month trial suggest people tend to revert to old habits over time.

“The first year is diet and exercise intensive with a lot of regular support from our dietitians and exercise physiologists,” says Murphy, including regular visits, group sessions, cooking classes, food hampers and weekly walking groups with volunteers.

“And we are using behaviour change techniques such as motivational interviewing and cognitive behavioural therapy to empower our volunteers so they can take charge of their own health journey and make healthy habits that are sustainable in the long term.”

It’s the first study of its kind globally, to her knowledge. They’ve started recruiting villages and community groups and are looking for 364 willing volunteers to take the challenge.

Murphy is optimistic about the many benefits offered by the trial. “We hope this type of program will reduce the possibility of social isolation and improve mood and wellbeing.”










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