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An Active Mind Keeps Dementia Away

Challenge the body and  it becomes stronger and more resistant to disease; exercise and vaccination are examples. That should apply to the brain as well as the muscles and other parts of the body. Yes, but it’s difficult to prove when it comes to the brain. It's reasonably well established that reduced mental activity is associated with cognitive decline. What’s not clear is what comes first, reduced mental activity or brain breakdown. People with Alzheimer’s disease and other such brain maladies are by definition less mentally active. A new study from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago addresses the dilemma by taking cognitive-related pathology out of the picture, leaving only mental activity and cognitive function.

The study is of necessity observational; it doesn’t establish causation. It’s simply not feasible to conduct a randomized clinical trial of a lifestyle activity such as mental activity. You simply can’t control long term mental activity. Nevertheless, the researchers have good reason to believe the connection between mental activity and decline is causal.

Lead researcher Robert S. Wilson, PhD, and colleagues for the first time found—after adjusting for brain pathology—that more mental activity over a lifetime is associated with less mental decline. In short, an active mind seems to hold off cognitive decline.

The study is simple in design but sophisticated in execution.  

Part of the larger Rush Memory and Aging Project, 294 people (average age 80) rated their lifetime—childhood, young adulthood, middle age, and current—participation in mentally stimulating activities: visiting libraries or museums, writing letters, playing cards, doing puzzles and the like. They also completed annual cognitive tests until they died (a mean of 5.8 years). Their brains were autopsied for neurological anomalies, such as plaques, tangles, infarcts, and Lewy bodies. 

After adjusting for pathologies signifying cognitive disease, age at death, sex, and education, Dr. Wilson and his team found that more mentally stimulating activity across the life span is associated with 14% less cognitive decline. The 14% is an average. As one might expect, mental activity was found to provide more benefit (cognitive reserve) in old age than in youth, when your brain doesn’t need as much encouragement.  

“Our results suggest that it is a good idea to start doing some sort of cognitive activity every day if you’re not already,” Dr. Wilson told Medscape Medical News. “Engaging in cognitive activities is important at all stages of life,” he added.

How challenging mental activity helps is uncertain, but informed speculation by the researchers is most encouraging: “Habitual participation in cognitive stimulating pursuits over a lifetime might substantially increase the efficiency of some cognitive systems so that a relatively greater neuropathologic burden would be required to impair functioning.” In other words, stimulating mental active makes you more resistant, inoculates you, to mental decline.

(The Wilson study was published July 23, 2013 in the journal Neurology.)

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We can help ourselves by staying mentally active, and in the process make our lives fuller, more productive, and more satisfying.

A long ago lifting acquaintance of mine used to crow, “One thing I’ve got going for me is that I ain’t ever read any books except maybe Strength & Health.” He obviously didn’t equate training the body with training the mind. He was four square in favor of training the body, but the idea of training the mind was lost on him. He probably had lots of company, then and now. On the other hand, he might have been more open to the idea that physical exercise builds the infrastructure of the brain; see “Reboot Your Brain with Exercise” http://www.cbass.com/RebootBrain.htm   

My grandmother—who died at 98 with her mind intact—probably never gave much thought to stimulating her brain. Be that as it may, she was mentally active throughout her life. To the end, she read the newspaper and watched the 10 o’clock news. She balanced her checkbook during many decades of widowhood. She also played cards with her lady friends. She never did any formal exercise, but it wasn’t unusual to find her down on her hands and knees scrubbing her kitchen floor late in her life. Staying mentally and physically active throughout her very long lifespan served her well.

I should add that she didn’t smoke or consume alcohol.

“Dementia affects a staggering proportion of individuals, imposing a huge cost to our society,” researchers from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., wrote in an editorial accompanying the Wilson study. My grandmother died at home in her sleep, never having spent a day in the hospital. My lifter friend worked his whole life and died young. While neither of them was a financial burden on society, my grandmother was a far better role model for holding off mental decline.

 The editorial, penned by Drs. Prashanti Vemuri and Elizabeth C. Mormino, urged us to “read more books, write more, and do activities that keep your mind busy.”

That’s great advice. Mental activity can also enrich our lives.

Carol has been an avid reader since childhood. My reading has been more narrowly focused, but we both read constantly. We wouldn’t have it any other way—even if it didn’t help to keep our minds operating on all cylinders.

Challenge your mind and challenge your body. New research from the University of Maryland found that just 12 weeks on a moderate exercise program improved mental efficiency, protecting against or delaying cognitive impairment. The combination of a busy mind and an active body is a powerful prescription for the long sought ideal of a sound mind in a sound body.

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