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Alzheimer's Disease Health Center

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Lifelong Reading, Hobbies May Help Fend Off Dementia

Stimulating activities may encourage brain to adapt and create 'work-arounds,' study suggests


How do intellectually challenging activities help support brain function?

The brain tries to constantly adapt to the challenges it's asked to do, Wilson explained. "The brain is experience dependent," he said. "Activities that are sustained are going to impact its structure and function. And cognitive circuits that are elaborately structured and functioning very well are able to adapt when the inevitable onslaught of aging occurs."

The researchers conducted long-term follow-up and actually performed autopsies of the participants' brains after death to confirm the absence or presence of disease, Vemuri said.

The scientists began back in 1997, asking 294 participants -- all older than 55 -- to report on their lifetime and recent thinking-related activities, from childhood to young adulthood, middle age and the present. They tested participants' memory and thinking ability regularly, and did annual neurological exams. The participants were about 68 percent women, had 14 years of education and 37 percent had mild thinking impairment when they started in the study.

After each participant died, examiners who had no knowledge of the clinical evaluation data did an independent inspection of the brain, looking for established signs of dementia, called plaques, tangles, infarcts and Lewy bodies.

The researchers then compared those brain findings to the data they had collected, and found that current mental activity slowed the rate of mental decline years before death.

Wilson pointed out that the research doesn't prove cause and effect. A clinical trial would be needed for that -- which involves randomly assigning people to one set of behaviors or another -- and that would be unethical and inordinately expensive, he said. But he's now doing neuroimaging studies to better understand what it is about a cognitively stimulating lifestyle that helps protect the brain.

As for how to best protect your brain, Wilson recommended finding real-world activities -- rather than just crossword puzzles or Sudoku games -- that include a combination of challenges and the need to focus and concentrate. "Find a hobby that is sustainable: quilting, photography, acting in the theater, even learning Morse code," he suggested. "Physical activity is also important."

Vemuri encouraged people to start developing their thinking and memory skills as young as possible. "Parents should know that reading programs at a young age will help their kids have a good old age," she said.

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