As the classic idiom goes, prevention is better than cure, and this is exactly what much of the recent research on dementia has focused on.
We know that a significant part of Alzheimer’s risk is in our DNA, but many of the determinants of dementia are caused by lifestyle. There is no proven, surefire way to prevent or cure dementia, but scientists are finding that individuals who tend to follow certain habit patterns generally have less brain loss with age.
Adding to a mountain of research suggesting that an overall healthy lifestyle can dramatically lower the risk of cognitive decline, we’ve learned that walking three times a week, do not smoke, playing music and following a generally heart-smart lifestyle can move the needle significantly and reduce the chances of being diagnosed with dementia.
As many as one in five seniors aged 65 and older will experience some form of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which can affect memory, decision-making and/or reasoning skills. In many cases, MCI develops into dementia, including: Alzheimer’s disease.
The latest lifestyle-related research on the topic may be one of the most fun yet: According to a brand new study published July 14 in the journal Neurology, a “cognitively active lifestyle,” which includes writing letters, reading, and playing games in old age, can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease by 5 years.
Previous studies have shown that reading can lower the risk for cognitive decline, leading scientists to hypothesize that brain-stimulating activities could delay the onset of dementia by reducing the “cognitive reserve‘ or our thinking ability, which varies from person to person and throughout life.
“You could say that the cognitive activity throughout life slows the symptoms, but does not stop the underlying disease. In other words, the activity gives you a ‘reserve’ that makes you ‘resilient’ against the presence of Alzheimer’s disease. the brain, allowing you to function better for longer”, James Rowe, professor of cognitive neurology at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, adds in the: Medical news today story about the investigation. (Rowe, by the way, was not involved in the research, he just joins a general expert context.)
To determine this, the scientists studied data from 1,903 people with an average age of about 80 years who participated in the Project Rush Memory and Aging. None of these individuals had been diagnosed with dementia at the start of the study.
At the beginning, each participant answered seven questions to assess their levels of cognitive activity. Questions were about how much time they spend per day reading, how often they wrote letters, and how often they played games (such as cards, puzzles, or board games). The seniors also shared details about their cognitive activity in their early life, current loneliness levels, and how social they usually are (for example, visiting family or friends).
Each person also took annual clinical evaluations, which included medical history, a neurological exam, and a battery of 19 cognitive tests. They also agreed to a brain autopsy after death.
At the end of the 7-year study, 695 participants had died and 457 had developed Alzheimer’s disease (the latter group included both living and deceased individuals). Those who were most cognitively active as seniors developed Alzheimer’s disease on average at age 93.6. Those who reported the fewest cognitive challenges in old age developed Alzheimer’s disease around an average age of 88.6 years.
It’s worth noting that this could be a chicken-and-egg scenario, the scientists write, “it’s possible that a low level of cognitive activity is an early sign of an underlying disease rather than a true risk factor.”
Still, the researchers believe a more likely explanation is that cognitively stimulating habits change the way the brain is structured and how it functions to increase that aforementioned cognitive reserve.
“I was convinced that higher cognitive activity would be associated with the onset of dementia later in life, but I wasn’t sure of the magnitude of the association,” Dr. Robert Wilson, lead author of the article. Medical news today. “The study suggests that a cognitively active lifestyle can delay the cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and related conditions by several years and thereby significantly reduce how much of a person’s life is spent in a cognitively impaired state. We asked about everyday cognitively stimulating activities, such as reading a newspaper or book or visiting a library; it was cognitive activity in old age that was most protective.”
This research clearly shows that cognitive activity is good for you and your well-being later in life, and that’s an important message to get out. It’s not about what to do after you get memory symptoms or dementia, but how to prevent the dementia. by being active earlier in life — part of a larger shift from just treating dementia to taking care of brain health,” Rowe summarizes. “While cognitive activity may indicate the presence or severity of the brain changes from dementia Alzheimer’s does not change, your brain is better able to cope with the pathology” and the diagnosis and severity are delayed.
While this study was quite lengthy and extensive, it was conducted on mostly white, well-educated participants. Future research should focus on larger cohorts of diverse adults, the scientists recommend.
In addition to daily reading, playing and writing notes, check out how to exercise for better brain health and the Best Foods to Limit to Reduce Alzheimer’s Risk Alzheimer’s.