A new study finds that doing brain-stimulating activities from your childhood, such as reading books, writing letters and solving everyday problems through old age may help to prevent clinical signs of dementia such as memory loss. “Certain things increase or decrease your vulnerability to cognitive [mental] decline,” said Robert Wilson, the study’s lead author. By keeping your brain active, it seems to help certain brain circuits operate effectively, even if a gradual buildup of brain disease is already occurring. The study found that people who engaged in frequent mental activity in later life had a rate of mental decline that was 32% lower than those with average activity. Meanwhile, people with infrequent mental activity experienced a decline in mental abilities that was 48% faster.
The research helps to explain why one-third of people die in old age with little or no signs of problems with thinking, learning or memory, yet when brain autopsies are done, they actually have clear evidence of Alzheimer’s disease, Wilson said, “They [technically] have the disease, but it’s not expressed clinically,” he said. The idea that the brain somehow creates a “work-around” to avoid showing signs of Alzheimer’s or other dementia is often referred to as the “cognitive reserve hypothesis,” Wilson said. The concept suggests that people with greater thinking, learning and memory abilities are somehow able to delay symptoms of Alzheimer’s. But proving this hypothesis has been challenging for scientists.
“There’s been this long-term debate in the field about how cognitive activities preserve cognition,” said Prashanthi Vemuri, an assistant professor of radiology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “Does engagement in cognitive activities slow cognitive decline, or are people less interested in doing cognitive activities because they have problems with dementia?” Vemuri said. She thinks the study breaks new ground. “It confirms that whatever is happening in the brain is happening, but the cognitively stimulating activities a person does independently slow down the progression of the disease.”
Additional research is required, however, to learn how to best protect your brain, Wilson recommends finding real world activities that include a combination of challenges and the need to focus and concentrate. “Find a hobby that is sustainable: quilting, photography, acting in the theater, even learning Morse code,” he suggested. “Physical activity is also important.”
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