Will staying mentally active help me to avoid dementia in my old age?
A new study published in the medical journal Neurology concludes that stimulating mental activities such as reading, playing board games, going to the museum, and even watching television, are associated with a delayed diagnosis of dementia. The study looked at 1,100 adults who were 65 years of age and older and followed them for 12 years to determine what sort of activities they engaged in and whether they were diagnosed with dementia.
The operative word here being ” followed” for 12 years, not that the study subjects were split randomly into two groups with one receiving orders to engage in more mentally stimulating activities and the other group allowed to go about their daily lives.
This is how rigorous scientific studies are normally conducted; and so-called observational studies such as this one can only suggest a link between a certain activity and the disease process. For example, people who carry matches in their pocket are more likely to develop lung cancer. Does this mean that not carry matches in your pocket will decrease your risk of lung cancer? No, just that people who carry matches in their pockets are more likely to smoke, and smoking has been proven to increase a person’s risk of lung cancer.
The patients in this study who engaged in a higher frequency of intellectually stimulating activities such as reading could have a higher reserve of brainpower and thus take longer for a dementia like process to affect their brain. Meaning that a person who spends a lot of time reading books and going to museums has a lot of extra brainpower which will help them to maintain mental functioning longer as they age.
Therefore, it is not a given conclusion that doing more crossword puzzles or reading more books will help you to avoid developing dementia such as that associated with Alzheimer’s disease. A way to test this possible therapy for dementia would be too ask people to engage in mentally stimulating activities and to see if this decreased the incidence or severity of dementia. As far as I know, such a study has not been completed.
While it makes sense that exercising your brain would help it to stay stronger, as this is certainly the case with muscles in the human body, the brain functions very much differently than a muscle. When areas of the brain are actively working scientists can see an increase of blood flow in these areas of the brain, and there are an increased number of firing neurons. But do these transient changes in blood flow, and increased neuronal stimulation, somehow affect the disease process associated with dementia?
In the case of Alzheimer’s disease neuroscientists have discovered that the accumulation of a protein called beta amyloid is behind the development “amyloid plagues” seen in the brains of patients with this disease. In fact, medical therapies are being designed which could interfere with the accumulation of beta amyloid plaques in the brain and could potentially prevent, or even possibly reverse, the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
However, does increase brain stimulation somehow prevent the formation of amyloid plaques or other pathologic changes found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease? More research needs to be done to understand if there is a possible link between brain activity and the formation of amyloid plaques. However, it is known that when the human brain sleeps the level of beta amyloid decreases, thus giving credence to the idea that the less active brain is able to repair this type of damage more easily.
Will engaging in mentally stimulating activities make my dementia more devastating if I get this disease?
Another piece of this research that is being publicized is the conclusion that people who are mentally active experience a greater degree of deterioration in their mental functioning once they are diagnosed with dementia. However, it should be noted that people who engage in a high amount of mentally engaging activities have more to lose in terms of cognitive function in the first place. And that the loss of such pleasurable activities such as the ability to read or enjoy crossword puzzles can produce depression into giving patient which can exacerbate dementia.
What sort of advice could be formulated from this study?
Personally, I believe that this study is just an observational study which shows that people who engage in stimulating mental activities are affected by dementia in different ways. However, there appears to be little upon which to make a concrete recommendation that patients engage in mentally stimulating activities. Most people engage in the large amount of reading do it out of a lifelong love of books. However, should people who don’t enjoy reading start engaging in this activity, or should they do activities which they enjoy? Or in other words, should doctors recommend that their patients do crossword puzzles each day? For now the evidence doesn’t seem to support this advice.