What’s a 10 Letter Word for Maintaining Your Brain?
For Deborah Blacker, MD, ScD, and her colleagues, brain health and dementia prevention is serious business, but they can sum up a portion of their recent research findings with a humorous anecdote.
“A colleague of mine who worked on the study shared this, ‘A patient asks his physician if he should take up crossword puzzles to help prevent dementia. The doctor’s response: Do you like crossword puzzles?’”
Dr. Blacker, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Professor and Deputy Chair, Epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, recently published Late-life Cognitive Activity and Dementia: A Systematic Review and Bias Analysis. The study reveals the impact of a wide variety of cognitive activities on the rate of Alzheimer’s disease/dementia in older people.
The bottom line? Exercising your brain may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease/dementia.
“The message I hope people take from our work is that they should get more engaged in activities they like and maintain that engagement through retirement,” said Dr. Blacker. “That engagement should have a great benefit in terms of mood and quality of life and it may well help prevent dementia, too.”
Published in the journal Epidemiology and on AlzRisk – an online database – the research review focused on 12 observational studies that together included nearly 14,000 participants. The studies examined the impact of pursuing brain-challenging activities, either in mid-life or later, and a later diagnosis of dementia.
The Prevention Puzzle
The definition of brain activities varied among the studies, according to Dr. Blacker. Reading, taking classes, visiting a museum, playing a musical instrument, doing crossword puzzles, playing brain games, and even watching television—all were deemed brain-stimulating activities among the various studies.
“Many of the studies had broad definitions of brain activities,” said Dr. Blacker. “The researchers definitely didn’t limit their list to one kind of activity and they typically didn’t compare one activity to another.”
The studies also didn’t account for the positive impact of the physical and social components built into many of the brain activities included in the studies.
“When you go to the museum, for example,” Dr. Blacker said, “you have to get out the door and go there so there’s a physical component. If you play bridge, you can’t play alone so there’s a social component.”
How often should you participate in these brain-fueling activities? According to Dr. Blacker, as often as you like. Her research uncovered no recommendations on how frequently you need to participate in these activities in order to benefit your brain, although some studies did suggest more is better in terms of decreasing the risk of dementia.
“This study lends some additional support to the idea that cognitive activity may decrease risk of dementia, but the research is based on people choosing what they like to do in a naturalistic setting. My take home message to people is to be active and to do things you enjoy,” Dr. Blacker said. “You don’t have to spend lots of money on brain training activities. The message here is to remain engaged in life because it may actually benefit you cognitively and even if it doesn’t, it’s still a good thing.”