Published on: February 26, 2012
by Meredith Heagney for The Columbus Dispatch
Reading this newspaper might help you prevent Alzheimer’s disease. So might writing a letter, playing a card game or visiting a library.
Researchers have long believed that cognitive activity could help strengthen the brain’s defenses against the devastating neurological disease. But a new study shows for the first time how that might work. Test subjects who engaged in cognitive exercise over a lifetime had less of a protein that is believed to contribute to brain-cell decline in Alzheimer’s patients.
Researchers at the University of California-Berkeley used brain scans to measure the amount of beta amyloid, a protein that accumulates between nerve cells and reduces brain function. They tested healthy young people, healthy older people and a group of Alzheimer’s patients and found that the healthy older people who exercised their brains throughout their lives had less beta amyloid built up in their brains. That means they should be less likely to contract Alzheimer’s.
“What this suggests is that lifelong cognitive engagement might have real, substantial benefits to the brain,” said Bill Jagust, a UC-Berkeley professor of public health and neuroscience and a co-author of the study.
The research did not look at whether some activities were more beneficial than others. What matters is that the brain is engaged, Jagust said, and that the benefits are greatest if the activity is started at a young age.
“We don’t think starting to do games when you’re 75 is going to help with this particular mechanism,” he said. Researchers have found that a bigger “cognitive reserve” could delay the onset of symptoms, said Dr. Douglas Scharre, the director of the division of cognitive neurology at Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State University.
The same goes for those with more education. “You have more to destroy before you reach the threshold where ‘I’ve forgot my keys’ or ‘I can’t remember how to pay the bills.’ ”
Scharre and other OSU researchers are studying people with mild cognitive problems now, asking them to complete exercises in music, art and problem-solving, in the hopes it will improve their memory loss. Similarly, a new program at the Columbus Museum of Art is designed to help spark memories in people with Alzheimer’s and dementia. The monthly program aims to give patients and their caregivers a chance to discuss works of art.
In trial runs, the art appeared to help people make connections, said Kenneth Strong, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association, Central Ohio Chapter. “It’s just amazing. They come up with things in their past that catch you off guard.”
Despite some of the data, Scharre cautioned that it’s unclear whether exercising your brain, even from a young age, can stop Alzheimer’s. It might delay it, he said, but it’s a “bigger leap” to think the disease could be prevented in someone who’s genetically prone.
Jean Carper, a former medical writer for CNN who grew up in Delaware County and attended Ohio Wesleyan University, is one of those vulnerable people. She tested positive for a gene that increases her risk of Alzheimer’s, and in 2010, she wrote a book called 100 Simple Things You Can Do to Prevent Alzheimer’s.
Challenges are good, said Carper, who at 80 recently took an acting class and is working on a documentary about Alzheimer’s. Carper said she has yet to see signs of the disease.
Scharre, the Ohio State neurologist, said cognitive exercise is worth a shot. “Why not do more with your brain?” he said. “You might help society; you might help yourself. You’ll probably enjoy life more. There’s no downside.”
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