Study: A Healthy Lifestyle Improves Memory

Exercise and diet have a bigger influence on your brain than you think

Doctors may soon be issuing this advice to adult patients with memory problems: Don’t smoke, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and exercise regularly. 

It turns out those gray hairs don’t necessarily come with a side of senior moments. In fact, memory problems may be the result of personal lifestyle choices, according to a new UCLA and Gallup study. The study polled more than 18,000 adults aged 18-99 from around the U.S., asking them whether they smoke, eat fruits and vegetables and exercise. Gallup interviewers then asked study participants whether they have memory problems.

The findings are the result of a new study that polled more than 18,000 adults, ages 18-99. Gallup called study participants all over the county and asked if they smoked, ate fruits and vegetables, exercised. They then asked if the study participants had memory problems. Participants were divided up into three groups—more than 4,000 young adults (median age 27), more than 6,000 adults (median age 50) and nearly 8,000 older adults (median age 70).

In the end, those who didn't smoke, ate their vegetables and exercised regularly were less likely to have memory problems than their counterparts. Young adults reported the highest incidence of unhealthy living, and about 14 percent claimed memory problems.

Lead Researcher Gary Small is the director of UCLA’s Longevity Center, and has been studying memory impairment and aging for more than 20 years. He says that a healthy lifestyle could delay symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer's disease to the point where people outlive the disease’s progression. “People have more control than they think over their brain health,” Small says.

That's not only good news for active people; it also supports existing studies that connect exercise to brain health and, indeed, even growth.

Small also takes a step further, saying that genetics determines only about a third of risk related to future brain health, while healthy lifestyle is at least partially responsible for the other two-thirds of that risk.

While the study’s results are a good indicator for active people, they don't mean that a healthy lifestyle can cure memory problems. The oldest group polled by the UCLA-Gallup study still experienced the most memory problems when compared to young and middle-aged adults. Small says memory problems are a normal part of aging, but that healthy habits help seniors’ memories.

So what's the takeaway here? Keep doing the sports your passionate about, fuel your exercise with high-quality whole foods and, in the end, you're more likely to remember it all later in life.