Use It or Lose It: Keeping Brain Active May Help Ward Off Alzheimer’s

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Can doing crossword puzzles help stave off dementia? It might, according to a new study finding that people who engage in mentally stimulating activities throughout life — especially in early and mid-life — have less buildup of beta-amyloid protein in their brains in older age.

Beta-amyloid is the main component of the sticky brain-clogging plaques that are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.

The findings add to the growing evidence that a variety of lifestyle factors may help people lower their risk of developing memory problems with age. Previous research has identified a host of brain-boosting factors, among them: eating a healthy diet, exercising, socializing, losing weight, quitting smoking, learning a second language and staying generally physically healthy.

The authors of the current study, published in the Archives of Neurology, say that cognitive stimulation is but one of many interrelated lifestyle habits — including occupational, social, community and recreational activities — that may ultimately affect brain health long term.

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For the study, researchers surveyed 65 older adults, average age 76, about their lifetime participation in brain-challenging activities and other lifestyle factors. The researchers used PET scans to measure the amount of beta-amyloid accumulated in the volunteers’ brains and gave them tests of memory and thinking. For comparison, researchers also included 10 patients with Alzheimer’s and 11 healthy young controls, average age 25.

Overall, participants who reported being more mentally active throughout life had less beta-amyloid, a finding that was independent of age, sex or education. Brain beta-amyloid levels in people who reported engaging in the most cognitive activity — at least a few times a week — were similar to those of the 25-year-old controls. People who did the least brain exercise — less than a few times a month — had beta-amyloid levels similar to patients with Alzheimer’s. On tests of memory and thinking, however, all participants scored normally.

The researchers found that participants’ current cognitive activity had little impact on beta-amyloid levels. Rather it was the frequency of mental pursuits in earlier life — from age 6 to 40 — that mattered. “What our data suggests is that a whole lifetime of engaging in these activities has a bigger effect than being cognitively active just in older age,” study author Susan Landau of the University of California, Berkeley, told Reuters.

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The mind-sharpening activities measured in the study were cheap and easy for anyone to do, the researchers said, including:

  • Reading books or newspapers
  • Writing letter or emails
  • Going to the library
  • Playing games

It’s not clear exactly how mental activity may protect against the accumulation of Alzheimer’s proteins. The authors theorize that exercising the brain makes it more efficient, and that a fitter brain may produce less amyloid.

As previous studies have suggested, it may also make the brain more resilient when such proteins do build up. “A number of studies have suggested that increased education or cognitive activity associates with reduced risk for Alzheimer’s,” Greg M. Cole, associate director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, told HealthDay. “So if you have more wits to begin with, you can afford to lose more before you become impaired.”

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