Can Healthier Habits Help Preserve Mental Skills?

Wake Forest School of Medicine to coordinate nationwide study of lifestyle effects on cognitive function in older adults

February 7, 2019

Researchers in Finland recently found that lifestyle choices can help older adults stay mentally sharp. 

Now scientists at Wake Forest School of Medicine hope to find confirmatory evidence this is indeed the case by coordinating a large, national clinical trial sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Association through a $28 million grant.

An estimated 5.7 million Americans of all ages are living with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. There are approximately 50 million people worldwide with the disease – for which there is no known cure – and that total is expected to double every 20 years.

“An urgent need exists to find effective approaches for Alzheimer’s that can arrest or reverse the disease at its earliest stages,” said Laura Baker, Ph.D., associate professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine and one of the principal investigators of the study. 

“Lifestyle interventions focused on combining healthy diet, physical activity and social and intellectual challenges represent a promising therapeutic strategy to protect brain health.”

The Alzheimer’s Association U.S. Study to Protect Brain Health Through Lifestyle Intervention to Reduce Risk (U.S. POINTER) is a $35 million project that will compare the effects of two different lifestyle interventions on brain health in older adults who may be at risk for memory loss in the future. U.S. POINTER is the first such study to be conducted in a large group of Americans across the United States.

“We must evaluate all options to treat and prevent cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias,” said Maria C. Carrillo, Ph.D., the Alzheimer’s Association’s chief science officer.

“Concrete answers could help prevent millions from dying with Alzheimer’s and alleviate the dramatic impact this disease has on families. The Alzheimer’s Association is proud to launch this clinical trial with our scientific partners.” 

Approximately 2,000 volunteers at five U.S. sites will be enrolled and followed for two years in the study. The site led by Wake Forest School of Medicine already has begun enrolling participants.

Other sites in California and Illinois will begin enrollment later this year. The remaining two sites will be added soon.

People age 60 to 79 will be randomly assigned to one of two lifestyle interventions. Both groups will be encouraged to include more physical and cognitive activity and a healthier diet into their lives and will receive regular monitoring of blood pressure and other health measurements.

Participants in one intervention group will design a lifestyle program that best fits their own needs and schedules. Participants in the other intervention group will follow a specific program that includes weekly healthy lifestyle activities.

Baker is joined by three other principal investigators to help lead the trial: Mark Espeland, Ph.D., professor of public health sciences at Wake Forest School of Medicine; Rachel Whitmer, Ph.D., professor at the University of California at Davis School of Medicine; and Miia Kivipelto, M.D., Ph.D., professor of clinical geriatric epidemiology and neurology at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.

Jeff Williamson, M.D., professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine, and Jo Cleveland, M.D., associate professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine, at Wake Forest School of Medicine, are overseeing the clinical trial in North Carolina.

A previous study, the two-year Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability (the FINGER trial), which was led by Kivipelto, highlighted the promise of lifestyle interventions in slowing cognitive decline and serves as the model for U.S. POINTER.

“This growing coalition, assembled with leadership from the Alzheimer’s Association, demonstrates the strong global interest in collaborating to test whether lifestyle changes can protect brain health and prevent dementia for all people,” Baker said.

If interested in joining the study, call 1-833-361-7591.

Media contact:

Marguerite Beck, 716-2415