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Alzheimer's Disease Health Center

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Mental Stimulation May Cut Alzheimer's

Challenging the Brain Regularly May Help Prevent Alzheimer's Disease, Even Late in Life
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

June 27, 2007 -- You've heard of physical activity. Get ready for cognitive activity, which means challenging your brain, much like physical activity challenges your muscles.

Regular cognitive activity may help prevent Alzheimer's disease, according to a study published today in the journal Neurology's advance online edition.

The researchers included Robert S. Wilson, PhD, who works in Chicago at Rush University's Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center.

Wilson and colleagues studied 775 older Chicagoans (average age: 80) for up to five years.

None of the elders had Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia when the study began. Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia in older adults, but it's not a normal part of the aging process.

Upon enrolling in the study, participants got checkups and had their memory and other mental skills tested. They also completed a survey about their current and past cognitive activities.

"Items included activities like reading a newspaper, playing games like chess or checkers, visiting a library, or attending a play," Wilson's team writes.

They also noted their physical and social activities, income at age 40, and parents' education levels.

Participants repeated the mental skills tests every year.

Brain Benefits

During the study, 90 participants developed Alzheimer's disease.

Those who got frequent cognitive activity were about 40% less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease than those with little or no cognitive activity.

Wilson's team didn't stop there. They reasoned that cognitive activity might be a marker for other traits, such as higher income, more education, and social or physical activity.

So the researchers analyzed the data again with those factors in mind. The findings held. That is, cognitive activity appeared to benefit everyone, regardless of other factors.

Current cognitive activity was particularly important. Past cognitive activity wasn't enough to stave off Alzheimer's disease, the study suggests.

However, the study doesn't prove that cognitive activity prevents Alzheimer's disease -- and it doesn't blame Alzheimer's disease on insufficient mental stimulation.

All of the elders in Wilson's study showed some decrease in their scores in their annual mental skills tests. Those declines were less steep for cognitively active participants.

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