Research shows that a healthy diet, along with visiting friends and family and activities like reading or playing cards, can help reduce the risk of dementia.
Experts said incorporating healthy habits increases the chances of preventing conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.
They created a chart of six beneficial behaviors with a healthy diet considered eating at least seven of the 12 food groups (fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, dairy products, salt, oil, eggs, grains, legumes, nuts, and tea).
Writing, reading, playing cards or participating in other games at least twice a week is another area of healthy behavior.
Other areas include no alcohol, no more than 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, or more than 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise, and never been a smoker or a former smoker.
Social contact at least twice a week was the sixth healthy behavior, such as visiting loved ones, attending meetings, or going to parties.
Researchers analyzed data from 29,000 adults aged at least 60 years (mean age 72) with normal cognitive function who were part of the China Cognition and Aging Study.
At the start of the study in 2009, memory function was measured using tests and people were checked for the APOE gene, the strongest risk factor gene for Alzheimer’s disease.
Follow-up assessments were conducted over the next 10 years.
People in the study were analyzed based on how many healthy behaviors they had, and those with four to six healthy behaviors were placed in the most appropriate group.
After taking into account a number of factors likely to influence the results, the researchers found that each healthy behavior was associated with a slower-than-average decline in memory over 10 years.
A healthy diet had the strongest effect in slowing memory decline, followed by cognitive activity (writing, reading, playing) followed by physical exercise.
People with the APOE gene who had generally healthy lives experienced a slower memory decline than those with the APOE gene who were the least healthy.
Overall, people with the healthiest (four to six healthy behaviors) or even average healthy lifestyles (two to three healthy behaviors) were almost 90% less likely to develop dementia or mild cognitive impairment than those who were least healthy. .
Writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), the team said more research is needed but concluded that “a healthy lifestyle is associated with slower memory loss, even in the presence of APOE.”
Dr Susan Mitchell, head of policy at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “Few of us know that there are steps we can take to reduce our risk of dementia later in life.
“This adds to substantial evidence that a well-conducted study that follows people over a long period of time and a healthy lifestyle can help support memory and thinking skills as we age.
“While the genes we inherit play an important role in our likelihood of dementia as we age, more importantly, this research found a link between a healthy lifestyle and slower cognitive decline, even in people with a key Alzheimer’s risk gene.
“So either/or not – this study shows that making lifestyle changes can help us reduce our risk, regardless of the genetic cards we are handed…
“There is no surefire way to prevent dementia – no one does it on their own or is ever responsible for a disease like Alzheimer’s. The best we can do is increase our chances of living longer with better cognitive health.”
Alzheimer’s disease affects an estimated one in every 14 people over the age of 65 and one in every six people over the age of 80.
Among the experts were staff from the National Center for Neurological Disorders in Beijing.