The study results may be confusing; but then again, reading about them may make your brain a little more resistant to dementia. Bottom line: Stimulating the brain with challenging hobbies and tasks helps people stay functional longer. "The main takeaway, for me, suggests that a mentally stimulating lifestyle is protecting against cognitive decline in old age," says Robert Wilson, PhD, senior neuropsychologist of the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Because the protected brain can function normally until the disease is more advanced, the symptoms of dementia or Alzheimer's progress more rapidly once they do appear. "If we're right, it is a bit of a trade-off," he says. "But one that most people would make—to have more time when you're cognitively functional and able to take care of yourself, your family, and your day-to-day business, and less time in a cognitively disabled state where you can't."
THE DETAILS: Researchers studied more than 1,150 people ages 65 and older who did not have dementia at the start of the 12-year study. Participants answered a questionnaire regarding how often they listened to the radio, watched television, read, played games, or visited a museum. The more people engaged in these things, the more points they scored.
During the next six years, the study found that the rate of cognitive decline in people without cognitive impairment was reduced by 52 percent for each point on the cognitive activity scale. Makes sense; busy brains stay sharper. But for people with Alzheimer's disease, the average rate of decline per year increased by 42 percent for each point on the cognitive activity scale.
That increase seems counterintuitive, as if the mentally engaging activities made people more vulnerable to Alzheimer's disease. But Wilson says that without the protection of those years of brain business, the symptoms appear sooner. When symptoms first appear, someone who commonly partook in mentally stimulating activities typically has more plaque and tangles in the brain—the physical damage caused by Alzheimer's— than someone who was not as mentally active. "The protection you get is in delaying the symptoms; if you go on to eventually develop Alzheimer's disease, the progression will be slightly faster than if you have a less cognitively active lifestyle," Wilson explains.
WHAT IT MEANS: Keeping your brain in shape could protect you from developing thinking problems and other symptoms early on, should you develop dementia or Alzheimer's disease. Which means more time living an independent, normal life; a less mentally stimulated person might start suffering symptoms of cognitive decline sooner.
Wilson notes that Alzheimer's disease occurs mainly in the very old, so people who delay its onset by even a year or two may reach the end of their lives without ever having to suffer the devastating and debilitating effects of Alzheimer's.
Here's what you can do to protect your brain from dementia:
• Keep that brain busy. The people in the study didn't perform specialized brain exercises or enroll in PhD programs. They simply kept their minds and brains challenged and stimulated through everyday activities and hobbies like reading, playing games, going to museums, even listening to the radio and watching television (let's assume at least some of the programs were intellectually challenging).
• Eat Greek and exercise your brain. The vegetable- and omega-3-rich Mediterranean diet has been linked to longer lives when compared to the sugar, fat, and salt-laden Western diet, and eating like a traditional Greek is also associated with less mental decline. Heck, taking a Mediterranean cooking class could serve a dual purpose in preventing Alzheimer's disease, by engaging your brain and keeping your body healthy.
• Take your D. A study published in the January edition of Neurology found that vitamin D deficiency was associated with a twofold greater risk of dementia. To find out your D levels, ask your doctor for a routine blood test, and talk about ways to boost levels if you're low (most Americans are). Vitamin D supplements may be in order.
• Get moving. Exercise could lower your risk of developing Alzheimer's, or even help reverse normal age-related memory problems. Aerobic exercise seems to be the most effective, so try breaking a sweat at least three times a week with a 30-minute walk, dance session, or bike ride. If you're just starting out, it's a good idea to have a physical, and kick things off with just 10 minutes of exercise a day until you build up your fitness level.
For more information on preventing Alzheimer's, follow these 12 tactics to help prevent Alzheimer's disease.