January 5, 2010
More good news for those who like to do crossword puzzles: A new study adds to a growing body of evidence that mentally challenging activities like word games, playing cards, reading and writing may delay the rapid memory loss that occurs with Alzheimer's disease.
The study involved 488 people who were in their 70s and 80s. All were free from Alzheimer's at the start. Each participant filled out questionnaires about how often they participated in six leisure-time activities: reading books, magazines or newspapers, writing, doing crossword puzzles, playing board or card games, participating in group discussions or playing music. For each activity, those who took part every day of the week were rated at seven points; several days a week was rated at four points; and once-a-week participation was rated at one point.
Researchers studied them for about five years, performing regular checks to look for signs of memory loss and other symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. During that time, 101 developed Alzheimer's or another form dementia. The findings appeared in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
Among those who developed dementia, the more activity points someone had, the longer they went without showing obvious signs of memory loss and other symptoms. The researchers found that for every additional activity a person participated in, the onset of rapid memory loss was delayed by about two months.
"The point of accelerated decline was delayed by 1.29 years for the person who participated in 11 activities per week compared to the person who participated in only 4 activities per week," said study author Charles B. Hall, Ph.D., of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
The results remained valid even after researchers factored in the education level of the participants. Having many years of formal schooling has been shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's in old age. "The effect of these activities in late life appears to be independent of education," Dr. Hall said. "These activities might help maintain brain vitality."
The findings are consistent with earlier reports that mentally challenging activities may help to build up so-called cognitive reserve, or the ability of the brain to function normally despite showing signs of damage from Alzheimer's disease. So while participating in these mentally stimulating tasks did not prevent the onset of Alzheimer's altogether, it did delay the onset of memory loss and thinking problems.
But once symptoms did become obvious, people who engaged in the most mentally stimulating activities beforehand tended to show a faster decline in memory and decline more rapidly.
The findings are consistent with other studies showing that a variety of activities like attending classes or playing board games or bingo may all boost the brain's ability. Social activities like doing volunteer work; attending a club or social center; going to movies or sports events; eating out at restaurants; paying social visits, or being visited by friends; or attending church or temple has also been linked to a delayed onset of Alzheimer's symptoms.
Other studies suggest that men and women who slack off on leisure-time activities in their midlife years are more likely to develop Alzheimer's when they are old. Similarly, seniors who maintain a rich social network and remain active throughout old age are less likely to develop the illness than those who participate in fewer activities.
Scientists theorize that regular participation in mentally stimulating activities, even late in life, may cause brain cells to establish rich and complex connections that may protect them from damage. It is also possible that mental stimulation causes new brain cells to grow. If some cells die, due to Alzheimer's or another disease, enough other cells may remain to keep the person healthy and mentally alert, thereby delaying the onset of symptoms.
Scientists aren't sure whether the activities themselves provide direct benefits, or whether people who forego participation are showing subtle, early symptoms of dementia. People with Alzheimer's often give up on favorite hobbies like crossword puzzles, and such lack of interest and apathy may develop years before they are actually diagnosed with the disease.
Still, seniors -- and everyone else -- should be encouraged to do crossword puzzles, read, and stay mentally and physically active, experts advise. The current results support earlier findings on the "use it or lose it" theory that staying mentally and physically active and engaged in your younger years helps keep the mind sharp.
C. B. Hall, Ph.D., R. B. Lipton, M.D., M. Sliwinski, Ph.D., et al: "Cognitive Activities Delay Onset of Memory Decline in Persons Who Develop Dementia." Neurology, Volume 73, pages 356-361, August, 2009