RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—New research has found that activities that engage the mind, such as reading and performing crossword puzzles, seem to help offset the early symptoms of dementia. And while the progression of Alzheimer's and other forms of cognitive decline may seem faster once symptoms appear, what's really going on is that buff brains have resisted the effects longer before the symptoms of dementia become evident. The study was published online in the journal Neurology.
The study results may be confusing; but then again, reading about them may make your brain a little more resistant to dementia. Bottom line: Stimulating the brain with challenging hobbies and tasks helps people stay functional longer. "The main takeaway, for me, suggests that a mentally stimulating lifestyle is protecting against cognitive decline in old age," says Robert Wilson, PhD, senior neuropsychologist of the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Because the protected brain can function normally until the disease is more advanced, the symptoms of dementia or Alzheimer's progress more rapidly once they do appear. "If we're right, it is a bit of a trade-off," he says. "But one that most people would make—to have more time when you're cognitively functional and able to take care of yourself, your family, and your day-to-day business, and less time in a cognitively disabled state where you can't."
THE DETAILS: Researchers studied more than 1,150 people ages 65 and older who did not have dementia at the start of the 12-year study. Participants answered a questionnaire regarding how often they listened to the radio, watched television, read, played games, or visited a museum. The more people engaged in these things, the more points they scored.
During the next six years, the study found that the rate of cognitive decline in people without cognitive impairment was reduced by 52 percent for each point on the cognitive activity scale. Makes sense; busy brains stay sharper. But for people with Alzheimer's disease, the average rate of decline per year increased by 42 percent for each point on the cognitive activity scale.
That increase seems counterintuitive, as if the mentally engaging activities made people more vulnerable to Alzheimer's disease. But Wilson says that without the protection of those years of brain business, the symptoms appear sooner. When symptoms first appear, someone who commonly partook in mentally stimulating activities typically has more plaque and tangles in the brain—the physical damage caused by Alzheimer's— than someone who was not as mentally active. "The protection you get is in delaying the symptoms; if you go on to eventually develop Alzheimer's disease, the progression will be slightly faster than if you have a less cognitively active lifestyle," Wilson explains.
WHAT IT MEANS: Keeping your brain in shape could protect you from developing thinking problems and other symptoms early on, should you develop dementia or Alzheimer's disease. Which means more time living an independent, normal life; a less mentally stimulated person might start suffering symptoms of cognitive decline sooner.
Wilson notes that Alzheimer's disease occurs mainly in the very old, so people who delay its onset by even a year or two may reach the end of their lives without ever having to suffer the devastating and debilitating effects of Alzheimer's.