Nature Versus Nurture: The Impact of Healthy Lifestyle Factors & Genetics on Memory Decline

It’s difficult to escape the fact that memory declines with age. Luckily, many studies suggest that cognitive decline can be slowed down by engaging in various healthy lifestyle practices, such as a eating a nutritious diet and getting regular exercise. With advancements in genetics research, however, some question whether genetics may have a greater impact on cognitive decline than lifestyle practices. To address both perspectives, researchers have essentially relied on the infamous nature versus nurture argument to explore whether cognitive decline is more strongly associated with the nature of one’s genetics or through nurturing one’s health through favorable lifestyle practices.  

Researchers examined the association between memory and cognition with various lifestyle factors and genetics using data from the China Cognition and Aging Study (COAST), a nationwide population-based study. To examine changes in cognitive decline over time, researchers first relied on (COAST) data collected in 2009, then again six months later. A universe of 29,072 respondents aged 60 and better with normal cognitive function ultimately participated in the study.  

Participants were categorized into three groups depending on the extent to which they adhered to six favorable lifestyle practices: a healthy diet, regular moderate or intense physical exercise, active social contact at least twice a week, active cognitive activity at least twice a week, and a history characterized by minimal smoking and alcohol use. Participants were further categorized into two additional groups depending on whether they were carriers of the APOE genotype, which has been identified as a risk factor for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Cognition was then assessed using the Auditory Verbal Learning Test (AVLT).  

The data indicate that lifestyle factors and presence of the APOE genotype both impact cognitive decline. When comparing all three lifestyle groups, results further indicate that greater adherence to positive lifestyles practices is associated with slower memory decline, regardless of whether respondents exhibited the APOE gene. Given these results, older adults should be pleased to hear that they have some control over the rate at which their cognition declines and are, ideally, empowered to engage in healthy lifestyle practices.  


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Jia, J., Zhao, T., Liu, Z., Liang, Y., Li, F., Li, Y., Liu, W., Li, F., Shi, S., Zhou, C., Yang, H., Liao, Z., Li, Y., Zhao, H., Zhang, J., Zhang, K., Kan, M., Yang, S., Li, H., … Cummings, J. (2023, January 25). Association between healthy lifestyle and memory decline in older adults: 10 year, population based, prospective Cohort Study. The BMJ. Retrieved January 31, 2023, from  


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