Starting this week, a world-first study, undertaken by multiple universities, will be exploring the health benefits of older people who follow a Mediterranean Diet while also undertaking regular daily walking.
Funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), the MedWalk Diet Trial will run for two years and will follow 364 older Australians, aged 60-90 years old, who live independently at a residential village, independent living supported accommodation, or part of a local community group, and are without cognitive impairment, across 28 residential sites in South Australia and Victoria.
Lead UniSA researcher, Associate Professor Karen Murphy, says combining the dietary benefits of the Mediterranean Diet, named the world's best diet for weight loss, with exercise intervention could deliver significant benefits to older people and stave off dementia.
"Dementia is a condition that affects a person’s thinking, behaviour and ability to perform everyday tasks. While it is more common in older Australians, it’s not a normal part of ageing," says Associate Professor Murphy.
"In Australia, around 472,000 people are living with dementia. Each year it costs the economy more than $14 billion which is expected to balloon to more than $1 trillion over the next 40 years.
"While there is currently no prevention or cure for dementia, there is growing consensus that a focus on risk reduction can have positive outcomes. That’s where our study comes in."
Associate Professor Murphy says that it is a timely study, as Australia's ageing population is growing to an expected quarter of all Australians aged 65 and over by 2050.
The Mediterranean Diet consists of fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, fish, and is low in saturated fats, red meat, and alcohol.
Over the next 24 months, residential community sites will be randomly assigned either the MedWalk intervention or to run their usual lifestyle (the control group).
"Early pilots of our MedWalk intervention show improved memory and thinking in a sub-group of older participants adhering to a combination of Mediterranean Diet and daily walking for six months," says Associate Professor Murphy.
"We’re now extending this study across a broader group of older Australians, using carefully designed behavioural change and maintenance strategies in the hope of substantially reducing the incidence of dementia across Australia."
Any changes to diet or exercise for participants will be supported through regular motivational, dietary and exercise sessions.
Head of Neurocognitive Ageing Research at Swinburne University's Centre for Human Psychopharmacology and Chief Investigator, Professor Andrew Pipingas, says this trial is aiming to prevent the onset of dementia and will provide valuable data on the effectiveness of diet and exercise changes.
"As it’s extremely difficult to find a cure and treat those in the later stages of the disease, focusing our efforts on helping those at risk of developing dementia to stay healthy is one way to ensure Australians stay well in the future," explains Professor Pipingas.
The universities involved in the study include UniSA, Swinburne University, Deakin University, La Trobe University, RMIT University, Murdoch University; and in the United Kingdom, Sheffield Hallam University and University of East Anglia, and University College Cork in Ireland.