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Crossword Puzzles May Be Good for the Brain, but Scientists Aren’t Sure Why

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Doing crossword puzzles, reading, writing and engaging in other mentally challenging activities appears to be good for the brain and may help to ward off Alzheimer’s, a new study shows. But any benefits from such activities do not appear to be due to limiting the brain changes typically associated with the disease.

Physical activities like bike riding, dancing and gardening may likewise have benefits for the brain and may also help to ward off Alzheimer’s, though they do not appear to stem the brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s, this study found.

“While a lifelong history of physical and mental activity may support better memory and thinking performance, this relationship may possibly be separate from any protection against the markers of Alzheimer’s disease in the brain,” said study author Dr. Keith A. Johnson of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

For the study, researchers recruited 186 older men and women, average age 74, who were part of the ongoing Harvard Aging Brain Study. All were free of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia or serious memory problems.

The study participants completed a questionnaire that asked about common activities like reading, writing, going to the library, doing crossword puzzles and other mentally challenging activities. Participants were asked to estimate how often they engaged in such activities at various points throughout their lives – at age 6, 12, 18, 40 and as seniors.

Participants were also asked about physical activity over the previous two weeks, including activities such as walking, gardening or yard work, calisthenics or general exercise, bicycle riding, swimming or water exercise, and dancing. They also wore a pedometer to assess their activity during the previous week.

In addition, all were given brain scans to assess levels of beta-amyloid, a protein that in its toxic form builds up in the brain of those with Alzheimer’s disease. Beta-amyloid accumulation can begin decades before the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms, though an estimated 25 to 50 percent of older people have evidence of beta-amyloid build-up without developing serious memory or thinking problems.

Sophisticated brain scans also assessed whether there was shrinkage of the hippocampus, a brain region critical for memory that is among the first regions affected by Alzheimer’s. They were also given tests of memory and thinking skills.

The researchers found that participants who tended to take part in stimulating cognitive activities like reading or doing crossword puzzles throughout their lives had significantly higher IQ’s and more robust memory and thinking skills than those who engaged in such activities infrequently. But there was no relationship between frequent mental or physical activity and any of the markers of Alzheimer’s disease in the brain. The findings appeared in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

“This suggests that sustaining a lifetime of intellectual engagement may help preserve cognitive function into old age,” said Dr. Johnson. “Our findings should not discourage people from engaging in physically and mentally stimulating activities, as they have been shown in numerous studies to generally offer many brain benefits.” In other words, one of the conclusions that can be drawn from this study is that mentally and physically challenging activities might prevent or delay dementia in older people who have already developed some of the brain changes seen in Alzheimer’s disease.

By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site, reviewed by William J. Netzer, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.

Source: Christopher M. Gidicsin, BA, Jacqueline E. Maye, MS Joseph J. Locascio, PhD, et al: “Cognitive activity relates to cognitive performance but not to Alzheimer’s disease biomarkers.” Neurology Volume 85, pages 1-8, June 10, 2015.

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