Fight Alzheimer's by exercising the brain

"What can I do to protect myself from Alzheimer's?" is a tricky question to answer, since there is no “magic bullet” to prevent people from developing this devastating disease that affects approximately 4.5 million people in the U.S.

The standard response, based on current research, is: eat a healthy diet — lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low amounts of saturated fat — control your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, exercise your body and brain, and cultivate a close network of friends and acquaintances.

A recent study comparing the long term effects of social, physical and cognitive activity in mice showed that cognitive activity was the best protector against developing Alzheimer’s disease (AD) in the future.  

These AD mice don't live very long, so it is easier for researchers to follow them across their entire lifespan. Scientists use MRI scans in order to view subtle brain changes in these mice while they are alive. Scientists also tightly control the environments of these mice, ensuring that only the variable of interest is changed across different groups, which strengthens their ability to draw conclusions. 

Researchers took young adult AD mice and assigned them to one of four groups: 1) high social activity 2) high physical activity 3) high cognitive activity and 4) a control group with no special activity. Only the mice in group three, who were given a lifelong high level of cognitive activity, were protected against memory impairment. Mice in group 3 performed as well as normal mice that do not go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, brain levels of beta-amyloid were substantially reduced only in group 3.

This study suggests that cognitive activity may be more important than social or physical activity for protecting against or delaying Alzheimer’s disease. 

The take home message? Start "exercising" your brain now to help prevent developing Alzheimer’s disease later.  

Here are some tips to help you "exercise" your brain:

  • Learn new things in your workplace, at home, or where you volunteer
  • Limit the amount of time you spend watching non educational TV and using the computer for passive  entertainment
  • Read books, newspapers and related educational on-line sites
  • Join a book discussion, poetry discussion or art discussion group
  • Have intellectually stimulating conversations
  • Play puzzle games (crosswords, Sudoku)
  • Go to museums  

Natalie Reiss is a licensed clinical geropsychologist, freelance medical writer and editor, a mother of two and a Cleveland Heights resident.

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Volume 2, Issue 7, Posted 1:22 PM, 06.03.2009