Mental Activity and Alzheimer's
Playing Cards, Reading Better Than Exercise in Reducing Risk of Memory Loss
June 18, 2003 -- When it comes to preventing
Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia, seniors may actually fare
better with several laps around a Monopoly board than around the
A new study in this week's New England
Journal of Medicine adds to mounting evidence that mentally stimulating
activities such as reading, playing cards and board games, and doing crossword
puzzles may prevent or minimize memory loss from aging.
But this time, researchers also compared these
brain-boosting hobbies to more physical activities in 469 seniors. Dancing was
the only one of eight that appeared to help with Alzheimer's
"And dancing isn't purely physical. It
involves some mental effort, as opposed to climbing stairs or walking, which
are more automatic as far as the brain is concerned," says lead researcher
Joe Verghese, MD, of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
"We're not saying that seniors shouldn't exercise because it offers so many
health benefits. But a reduced risk of Alzheimer's doesn't appear to be one of
The role of regular exercise in Alzheimer's
prevention has been questionable. Some studies suggest it mildly reduces risk,
likely because exercise improves blood flow and aids in brain cell development.
But other studies, like Verghese's, show no significant benefit in Alzheimer's
prevention from activities such as walking, swimming, climbing stairs, and
Verghese's study, which lasted 21 years and is
the longest to date, is at least the fourth since 1995 to suggest a strong
benefit from more sedentary but cerebral leisure activities -- likely because
of what researchers call the "cognitive reserve theory."
Buffer Your Brain
"The theory is that by engaging in mentally
stimulating activities, you're building a buffer against disease," he tells
WebMD. "Basically, you're exercising your brain to keep it strong and make
it more resistant to Alzheimer's and other illness. I strongly recommend that
elderly individuals engage in [brain] stimulating activities like chess, board
games, playing a musical instrument, or puzzles. And the more often they do,
Overall, his study participants who read, did
puzzles, or played cards, games, or musical instruments about four days a week
were two-thirds less likely to get Alzheimer's compared with those who did
these activities once a week or less. All were age 75 or older and had no
symptoms of dementia when the study began.
"I'm not surprised by this finding, I'm
gratified by it," says Robert S. Wilson, PhD, of the Rush Alzheimer's
Disease Center in Chicago. He led a study published last year in TheJournal of the American Medical Association that indicated a similar
effect on Alzheimer's prevention among seniors who more frequently engage in
these mental games.
"If you have the disease and it continues to
progress, I don't believe and don't think anyone else believes that playing
cards will stop it," he tells WebMD. "But this new research is really
consistent with what we've seen -- that these mentally stimulating activities
can help. Even if they can delay Alzheimer's for a few months or possibly
several years, that can have a tremendous public health impact."