Reading, jogging and spending time with friends could ward off this form of dementia

Depressed senior woman at home feeling sad. Elderly woman looks sadly outside the window. Depressed lonely lady standing alone and looking through the window.
Frontotemporal dementia describes a range of conditions that damage the frontal lobes. [Photo: Getty]

Reading, jogging and spending time with friends could ward off frontotemporal dementia (FD), research suggests.

FD is an umbrella term for a range of conditions that damage the frontal lobes. Found behind the forehead, these regulate behaviour, problem-solving, emotions and speech, according to the Alzheimer’s Society.

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Around 40% of FTD patients have a family history of the disease, with specific genetic mutations driving its onset in roughly half of these cases.

To uncover if lifestyle habits could help, a team from the University of California, San Fransisco, looked at 105 people with mutations linked to FTD.

They found the most active participants’ had declined 55% slower than their sedentary counterparts one-to-two years later.

Those who kept “mentally fit” also performed twice as well as on cognitive tests.

“This is devastating disease without good medical treatments, but our results suggest even people with a genetic predisposition for FTD can still take actions to increase their chances of living a long and productive life,” study author Dr Kaitlin Casaletto said.

“Their fate may not be set in stone.”

Research suggests exercise and “cognitive fitness” may slow or even prevent Alzheimer’s, however, less was known about how lifestyle habits influence FTD’s onset.

In the UK, at least 16,000 people live with FTD, Alzheimer’s Society statistics show.

The disease affects between 50,000 and 60,000 people in the US, according to The Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration.

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“There's incredible variability in FTD, even among people with the same genetic mutations driving their disease,” Dr Casaletto said.

“Some people are just more resilient than others for reasons we still don't understand.

“Our hypothesis was the activities people engage in each day of their lives may contribute to the very different trajectories we see in clinic, including when the disease develops and how it progresses.”

To get to the bottom of this, the scientists looked at patients who were genetically at risk of FTD but showing no symptoms or just mild signs of the disease.

The participants had MRI scans to measure their extent of brain degeneration, while also completing tests on memory and thinking.

They also reported on their daily physical and cognitive activities, like reading or socialising.

Just one-to-two years later, the scientists saw noticeable difference in the speed and severity of FTD between the most and least physically and cognitively active participants.

The participants’ relatives were asked about their functionality, including their ability to bathe themselves and manage their finances.

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Results, published in the journal Alzheimer's and Dementia, suggest the most active 25% declined 55% slower than the least active 5%.

“This was a remarkable effect to see so early on,” Dr Casaletto said.

“If this were a drug, we would be giving it to all of our patients.”

Scans revealed lifestyle habits did not have a significant impact on the degeneration of brain tissue, but still warded off symptoms.

“We've seen such significant effects in just the first year or two in people with very mild disease,” Dr Casaletto said.

“If these results hold, we may see an active lifestyle sets individuals on a different trajectory for the coming years.”

Future trials aim to assess exercise levels more accurately, such as via a Fitbit.

“It is possible some participants have less active lifestyles because they have a more severe or aggressive form of FTD, which is already impacting their ability to be active,” Dr Casaletto said.

“Clinical trials that manipulate cognitive and physical activity levels in people with FTD mutations are needed to prove lifestyle changes can alter the course of the disease.”

The scientists then hope to uncover how exercise and cognitive fitness wards off this form of dementia.

“Is that biological effect something we could replicate pharmacologically to help slow the progression of this terrible disease for everyone?,” Dr Casaletto said.