Reading, writing, doing crossword puzzles and solving challenging puzzles may be linked to a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Now a new study shows how mental stimulation may protect the brain.
The study, from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, used brain scans and an imaging agent called Pittsburgh compound B to measure changes in the brains’ of test subjects. Pittsburgh compound B binds to beta-amyloid, a toxic protein that builds up in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s and is the main component of the brain plaques that characterize the disease.
The study, published in the Archives of Neurology, included 65 healthy older volunteers whose average age was 76, along with 10 seniors who had Alzheimer’s disease. Ten young people in their 20s and 30s served as controls.
Participants were asked about how often they engaged in mentally demanding activities like reading books or newspapers, writing letters or e-mails, going to the library and playing games. As part of the questionnaire, they were asked to rate how often they did these activities – ranging from every day or almost every day, to once a year or less – during five different periods of their lives: at age 6, 12, 18, 40 and currently.
The researchers found that the more often someone engaged in mentally stimulating activities, the less buildup of beta-amyloid they were likely to have in the brain.
“We report a direct association between cognitive activity and Pittsburgh compound B uptake, suggesting that lifestyle factors found in individuals with high cognitive engagement may prevent or slow deposition of beta-amyloid, perhaps influencing the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease,” the researchers write.
Engaging in mentally challenging tasks in the early and middle years seemed to be especially important for preventing the accumulation of beta-amyloid plaque, the researchers found. The brains of seniors who engaged in mentally stimulating activities most often were comparable to those of young people in the control group. Older people with the least cognitive stimulation, on the other hand, had brains that more closely resembled those of people with Alzheimer’s.
The study participants were also asked about how often they engaged in physical activities like cycling, waking, dancing or doing yoga in the previous two-weeks. Other studies have shown a link between physical activity and staying mentally sharp in old age, though that association was not demonstrated in this study. Those who were more physically active, though, tended to participate in mentally challenging tasks.
The authors note that Alzheimer’s is a complex disease, with many factors contributing to its onset and course. “Cognitive activity is just one component of a complex set of lifestyle practices linked to Alzheimer’s disease risk that may be examined in future work,” they concluded.
Source: Susan M. Landau; Shawn M. Marks; Elizabeth C. Mormino; et al: “Association of Lifetime Cognitive Engagement and Low β-Amyloid Deposition.” Archives of Neurology online doi:10.1001/archneurol.2011.2748