January 25, 2012
Brain Boosting Activities Early In Life May Cut Later Risk Of Alzheimer’s
A new study suggests that people who engage in mentally stimulating activities such as reading and playing games — particularly early in life -- may be lowering levels of a brain protein linked to Alzheimer's disease.
The protein, known as beta-amyloid protein, is the main component of the destructive brain-clogging plaques that are a hallmark of Alzheimer´s disease.
Researchers at the University of California Berkeley surveyed 65 healthy elderly people, whose average age was 76 years old, and found that those who had engaged in mind-challenging activities such as reading and playing games tended to have lower amounts of the sticky beta-amyloid protein than those who were less mentally active.
The researchers then used PET scans to measure the amount of beta-amyloid accumulated in the volunteers´ brains, and tested the volunteers for memory and thinking.
For comparison, 10 patients with Alzheimer´s disease and 11 healthy young controls in their 20s were used as a control group.
Overall, the study participants who were more mentally active throughout their lives had less beta-amyloid, independent of age, sex or education level.
In fact, brain beta-amyloid levels in people who reported engaging in the most cognitive activity – at least a few times a week – were similar to those of the 25-year-old controls.
Not surprisingly, participants who did the least brain exercise – less than a few times a month – had beta-amyloid levels similar to patients with Alzheimer´s.
"This suggests that cognitive therapies could have significant disease-modifying treatment benefits if applied early enough, before symptoms appear,” said Dr. William Jagust, a professor at Berkeley's Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, and the principal investigator on the study.
The findings are the latest in a growing body evidence that suggests a variety of lifestyle factors may help people lower their risk of developing age-related memory problems. These factors include things such as exercise, consuming a healthy diet, socializing, weight loss and learning a second language.
However, the authors of the current study emphasize that cognitive stimulation is but one of many interrelated lifestyle habits that may affect long-term brain health.
The researchers found that all of the participants scored within normal range for memory and thinking, and that current cognitive activity had little impact on beta-amyloid levels. Rather it was the frequency of mental pursuits in earlier life – from age 6 to 40 – that mattered most.
“What our data suggests is that a whole lifetime of engaging in these activities has a bigger effect than being cognitively active just in older age,” said study author Susan Landau of the University of California, Berkeley, during an interview with Reuters.
The mind-boosting activities measured in the study included reading books or newspapers, writing letters or emails, going to the library and playing games.
Although it is unclear precisely how mental activity may protect against the accumulation of Alzheimer´s proteins, the researchers theorize that exercising the brain makes it more fit, and that a more efficient brain may produce less amyloid.
These activities may also make the brain more resilient when such proteins do build up.
The study was published on Monday in the Archives of Neurology.
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