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.
"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 them."
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 housework.
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, the better."
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."