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Why It's Important to Keep Your Brain Active

Intellectually Stimulating Activities
Studies have shown that keeping the brain active is associated with a reduced risk for Alzheimer's. In the Religious Orders Study, for example, investigators periodically asked more than 700 participants to describe the amount of time they spent in seven activities that involved significant information processing. These activities included:
 
  • Listening to the radio
  • Reading newspapers
  • Playing puzzle games
  • Going to museums.
 
After following the participants for 4 years, investigators found that the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease was 47 percent lower on average for those who did the activities most frequently than for those who did them least frequently. A growing body of research, including additional findings in this group, suggests that the more formal education a person has, the better his or her memory and learning ability, even in the presence of AD plaques.
 
Another study also supports the value of lifelong learning and mentally stimulating activity. In this study of healthy older people and people with possible or probable Alzheimer's disease, scientists found that during their early and middle adulthood, the healthy older people engaged in more of those activities and spent more hours engaged in them than did those who ultimately developed Alzheimer's disease.
 
The reasons for these types of findings aren't entirely clear; possible reasons include:
 
  • It may be that mentally stimulating activities protect the brain in some way, perhaps by establishing a "cognitive reserve"
  • Perhaps these activities help the brain become more adaptable and flexible in some areas of mental function so that it can compensate for declines in other areas
  • A third possibility is that a lower level of engagement in intellectual stimulation could reflect very early effects of the disease
  • Finally, perhaps people who engage in these activities have other lifestyle features that may protect them from developing AD.
 
The only way to really evaluate these possibilities is by testing them in a more controlled way in a clinical trial.
 
Several clinical trials have directly examined whether memory training and similar types of mental skills training can actually improve the cognitive abilities of healthy older adults and people with mild Alzheimer's disease. In the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) trial, certified trainers provided 10 sessions of memory training or speed-of-processing training to healthy adults who were 65 years of age and older. The sessions improved participants' mental skills in the area in which they were trained. Even better, these improvements persisted for 2 years after the training was completed. In another study, 25 participants with mild Alzheimer's disease worked with researchers to learn how to improve their ability to carry out various tasks, such as how to associate names and faces, recall the names of objects, and pay bills correctly. Compared to another group with mild AD who received more generic mental stimulation activities, people in the "cognitive rehabilitation" group improved their abilities more, and their abilities were still improved 3 months later.
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