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The Use-It-Or-Lose-It Defense

Mental challenges like crossword puzzles may keep Alzheimer's at bay

FRIDAY, Nov. 21, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- With all the talk of amyloid precursor protein, gene alleles and cholinesterase inhibitors, some Alzheimer's researchers have bucked the trend by setting their sights on something far simpler:

The daily crossword puzzle.

A June 19 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that activities that require mental energy -- such as reading, playing board games, doing crossword puzzles and playing bridge -- may help stave off Alzheimer's disease.

Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City followed 469 senior citizens for an average of five years. And they found the more a person pursued one of these brain-teasing activities, the less likely they were to develop a dementia, including Alzheimer's.

For instance, older people who did crossword puzzles four days a week had a risk for dementia that was 47 percent lower than those who only tried the puzzle once a week.

Although previous studies have obtained similar results, it was never clear whether the people who weren't reading or playing bridge actually had early Alzheimer's.

This study, on the other hand, excluded everyone who developed a dementia during the first seven years of the study, which ran from 1980 to 2001. The puzzlers and readers who ended up in the study probably had been engaging in those activities over a lifetime, says study author Dr. Joe Verghese, an assistant professor of neurology at Albert Einstein.

The next question is why the mental gymnastics seem to pay off.

Although not proven, some experts subscribe to a use-it-or-lose-it theory, also known as the cognitive reserve theory.

"According to this theory, by engaging in cognitive stimulating activities or being highly educated or having a mentally challenging occupation is building a buffer against the disease," Verghese explains.

And why is that?

Possibly because tasks that require mental energy help with new cell formation and with making new connections in the brain.

"It's almost like if you do regular physical exercise and you build up muscle strength, then if you get sick you will be able to resist the effects of sickness," Verghese says. "The cognitive reserve theory suggests that maybe the same thing happens to the brain.

"For the most part," he adds, "everyone has an equal chance of developing Alzheimer's. If you engage in cognitive-stimulating activities, more cells or more cell connections form so when the disease starts attacking cells it has to destroy more cells."

Another reason to exercise your body and your mind.

SOURCE: Joe Verghese, M.D., assistant professor, neurology, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York City
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