Brain Exercise May Delay Dementia, But Hasten Decline Once Disease Arrives

By Andrew Moseman | September 2, 2010 11:28 am

BrainOne headline reads “Doing Puzzles ‘Could Speed Up Dementia.'” Another, “Brain Exercise Helps Stave Off Dementia.” They’re both about the same new study out in Neurology this week. So which is it?

Both are shades of the truth, actually. Here’s what the scientists actually found:

Robert Wilson and his colleagues have been tracking more than a thousand people as part of their long-term study, begun in the early 1990s. The patients were 65 or older and the scientists interviewed them every three years.

Participants indicated on a 5-point scale how often they participated in seven activities: viewing television, listening to radio; reading newspapers; reading magazines; reading books; playing games like cards or doing puzzles; and going to museums. (A rating of 5 meant a person did some of these activities about every day; 3 meant several times a month; 1 meant once a year or less) [LiveScience].

At the time of the interview, the patient was also screened for signs of dementia and Alzheimer’s. What the scientists saw in the study participants was this: If the person did not have any kind of cognitive impairment, their normal cognitive decline slowed by 52 percent for each point they scored on the activity scale. But once the person was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia, their rate of cognitive decline was 42 percent faster for every point higher on the activity scale.

To put it a simpler way: Yes, seniors stay sharper longer when they exercise their minds. But the catch is that Alzheimer’s goes unnoticed for longer, masked by the cognitive ability of mentally active people. So, when the disease is finally noticed, its effects are more pronounced because the brain degeneration has already progressed.

This idea fits in with the “cognitive reserve” hypothesis of dementia. That theory basically holds that people who are mentally active can better withstand the gradual brain-cell damage that marks Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. But once that damage reaches a certain threshold, dementia symptoms will become apparent [MSNBC].

Neuropsychologist Yaakov Stern notes that there’s no way to know, at least not yet, exactly how much mental activity and what kind will produce the maximum benefit. But for his money, he’d take the extended benefit of cognitive ability, even if it came with a faster decline later on.

When dementia does come later and progress more quickly, experts say, that might be a good thing. “It’s not bad to have more good years of life and fewer years of bad life,” Stern said. “I think it’s a good deal” [Discovery News].

Related Content:
DISCOVER: What Does Alzheimer’s Look Like in Your Brain?
DISCOVER: Is Alzheimer’s Like a Strange Form of Brain Cancer?
80beats: Lack of ZZZZs Linked to Alzheimer’s in Mice
80beats: Big Neurons & Way With Words May Help Prevent Alzheimer’s

Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain
  • Rhacodactylus

    It sort of makes sense, I mean we all have the final base line at the end (death) if you put off your mental collapse longer, it will have to happen faster.

  • Wesley

    It sounds good to me! When I retire the chess club and the gym will be two of my favourite places! (With the local watering hole being a close third!)

  • nick

    The problem is we rely on self-reported symptoms and verbal testing for Alzheimers/dementia (and relatives often overlook symptoms even then because no one wants to believe gramma is losing her marbles) instead of regular brain scans to test for dysfunction. Because that’s expensive and talk is cheap.

  • Daniel J. Andrews

    Wesley…don’t wait for retirement before making the gym and chess club a favourite place. That way you’ll go into retirement ready to kick some cerebral and maybe physical butt. You’ll be the terror of the retirement community. :)

    –that’s my plan anyway–evil chuckle…..

  • Katharine

    Hmm. Odd contrast in headline versus content.

    Headline says ‘brain exercise delays dementia but HASTENS decline once disease arrives’.

    Actual article from MSNBC says ‘brain exercise delays appearance of symptoms of dementia to the onlooker, making it appear after the disease has started because the exercise has mitigated the effects of symptoms but by the time the disease becomes evident to onlookers the actual disease has progressed further’.

    These two things do not mean the same.


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