Mental Workouts Keep Alzheimer's at Bay
Study supports 'use it or lose it' notion about brain
TUESDAY, Feb. 12, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Seniors who read, go to museums and play mentally stimulating games are less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease than those who don't give their mind a regular workout.
That's the finding of a new study, which supports the increasingly popular notion among brain researchers that keeping the mind healthy means keeping it active. Neurons, like muscles, need regular exercise to maintain or add healthy connections.
However, experts say it's hard to know whether those with Alzheimer's develop the disorder because they don't jog their memory, or whether early symptoms of the disease keep them from fully enjoying their mind.
"Frequent activities seem to ward off cognitive decline," says Elisabeth Koss, an Alzheimer's expert at the National Institute on Aging. "Statistically, it seems like a good thing to do."
Earlier work, including research by Koss and her colleagues, has shown that those who have Alzheimer's are less likely than those who don't to have remained mentally vigorous before the dementia appeared.
The latest study, which appears in tomorrow's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, adds an important dimension to those findings by following seemingly healthy people over time and looking for differences between those who stayed that way and those who became ill.
The study, by scientists at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, tracked 801 Catholic nuns, priests and other clergy over 65 who were free of dementia when they enrolled in the research project. Over the next 4.5 years, on average, the clergy were tested annually in more than 20 areas of cognitive vitality, such as memory, attention span, spatial ability and language.
They were also asked about their participation in routine activities that are considered mentally stimulating: reading, watching television, playing word games, doing jigsaw puzzles, playing strategy games like chess and checkers and going to museums. How often they did some or all of these translated into a score on a five-point scale.
"This is a crude measure of how intellectually people are spending their time," says Robert S. Wilson, a Rush Alzheimer's expert and lead author of the paper.
Over the course of the study, 111 of the clergy developed Alzheimer's, the researchers say.
But for each increase of a point on the five-point scale, the risk of the disease fell substantially. Those who performed mental exercises least frequently were almost 50 percent more likely to develop dementia than those who reported doing them most often. A one-point increase in the overall activity score markedly reduced losses in cognition, memory and perception.
Education has been shown to guard against Alzheimer's, and 85 percent of the clergy in the study had a college degree. Yet, those with more mental pursuits later in life had an added measure of protection, letting researchers sort the effects of education from intellectual activity.
Unlike previous work, however, the researchers found no link between physical activity and protection from Alzheimer's.
The new study considers television viewing as stimulating as reading and other activities. But an earlier effort found that Alzheimer's patients tended to watch much more television in middle age than their peers without dementia.
"Doing something like TV viewing is not as stimulating as doing something like reading," says Heather Lindstrom, an anthropologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland who helped on the earlier research. "In terms of mental stimulation, I would argue that there's a difference."
Still, Lindstrom calls the Chicago findings "another strong piece of evidence that, in fact, cognitive stimulation is protective" against Alzheimer's.
What To Do
Are you keeping your mind in shape? Although determining what's adequate stimulation is difficult, here's a good rule of thumb: If you're bored, you're probably not getting enough, Lindstrom says.
An estimated 4 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's disease, which is thought to be caused by the buildup of protein plaques in the brain. The number of patients could hit 14 million by 2050 unless scientists find a cure for the illness, according to the Alzheimer's Association.
To learn more about the condition, visit the Alzheimer's Association or the Alzheimer's Disease Education and Referral Center. You can also try the Alzheimer's Research Forum or the University of California at Irvine.