WEDNESDAY, Nov. 10, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- If you needed another reason to get up off the couch and start exercising, a new study provides one: Along with lowering your risk of heart disease, keeping fit and eating healthy foods may also help prevent dementia.
The study found that older people who have metabolic syndrome, a group of cardiovascular risk factors, had a 20 percent higher risk of cognitive impairment compared to people without the syndrome.
"Having a sharp mind as you age may not be dumb luck, but rather may result from a combination of factors which you have an active choice in participating in," said Dr. Peter LeWitt, a neurologist at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich. LeWitt was not involved in the study, which appears in the Nov. 10 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Metabolic syndrome doesn't refer to any single type of metabolic disease, but instead to a specific group of symptoms, including abdominal fat, insulin resistance, high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels. As many as one in four Americans has metabolic syndrome, according to the American Heart Association.
"Metabolic syndrome is what you might refer to as typical couch potato syndrome. It's epidemic in the U.S.," said Dr. Corey Goldman, director of vascular medicine at Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans. "It's a crisis, actually."
Goldman explained that when you are overweight and inactive, metabolic changes begin in the body. Those changes, he said, can then affect the arrangement of blood vessels in the body and how the body responds to stresses. That means your blood vessels aren't as reactive to stress anymore, and your body's response to insulin, which helps your cells get energy, is also decreased.
Researchers from the National Institute on Aging, the University of California at San Francisco, the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and the University of Tennessee at Memphis collaborated on this study of 2,632 people aged 70 to 79.
Fifty-two percent of the study participants were women, and 40 percent of the group was black. One quarter of the study volunteers had elevated levels of inflammation.
Slightly more than 1,000 had metabolic syndrome, while 1,616 did not.
The researchers evaluated metabolic syndrome factors, levels of inflammation using C-reactive protein and interleukin-6, and cognitive status using a mini-mental state examination at that start of the study. The tests were repeated three years later, and finally during the fifth year of the study.
Overall, those with metabolic syndrome had a 20 percent higher risk of developing cognitive impairment during the study period. People who had high levels of inflammation and metabolic syndrome fared even worse, with a 66 percent increased risk of cognitive impairment compared to those without metabolic syndrome.
Those with metabolic syndrome and low levels of inflammation had only an 8 percent increase in their risk of cognitive impairment.
LeWitt said it's important to realize that the test used in this study is an "everyday life-oriented battery," and that scoring poorly on this test would likely mean very obvious cognitive decline.
The study, while credible and done on a large population, needs to be confirmed with other studies, according to LeWitt. In the meantime, he said, it's always a good idea to make healthier diet choices and to get more exercise.
"You can possibly lower your risk of Alzheimer's disease and other cognitive decline by what you do decades before," he said.
Goldman added, "The treatment of choice for metabolic syndrome is exercise and weight loss. While we do have a number of medications that can improve biochemical defects, healthy living is probably the most efficient and safest treatment."
The bottom line, said Goldman, is that "if you want to continue life in an enjoyable way, exercise and healthy eating are indispensable."
To learn more about metabolic syndrome, visit the American Heart Association.