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Brain maintenance: cognitive enhancement first, Alzheimer’s delay second

lBrain maintenance may play a role in postponing the emergence of dementia-related symptoms. A significant amount of research has been conducted on healthy aging in the past two decades. A number of factors have been associated with reduced risks of developing Alzheimer’s Disease symptoms.

Among these factors, mental activities range quite high.  As we described earlier, people who remain intellectually active and engaged in hobbies throughout their lives reduce their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. In a 2001 study conducted by Dr. Yaakov Stern, leading researcher on the cognitive reserve, individuals with the highest level of leisure activities presented thirty-eight percent less risk (controlling for other factors) of developing Alzheimer’s symptoms. For each additional type of activity, the risks were reduced by eight percent. It is believed that intellectually stimulating hobbies or activities help building up cognitive reserve. This can help postponing the appearance of the dementia’s symptoms.

Interestingly, education also seems to have a protective effect. Research into cognitive reserve found that the more education people have, the less they suffer from age-related decline. High levels of education have also been associated with lower risks levels for Alzheimer’s disease (Snowdon et al., 1989; Wilson et al., 2002). It is possible that the effect of education is related to the effects of intellectual stimulation as well-educated people are more likely to have cognitively stimulating jobs.

According to Dr. Arthur Kramer (whose interview you can find at the end of this chapter) the two key lifestyle habits that may help someone delay Alzheimer’s symptoms and improve overall brain health are to stay physically active and to maintain lifelong intellectual engagement. However, no specific program has been shown to prevent Alzheimer’s disease completely.

In sum, brain maintenance in general can be viewed as a way of delaying cognitive declines associated with aging and dementia to occur too early. Note however that, as Dr. Jerri Edwards points out, it is too early to say whether we can really reverse decline in a permanent way. Brain functions are complex and well-conducted studies looking at the long-term effects of brain exercises are yet to be conducted.

What about brain training itself?

We can define brain training as the structured use of cognitive exercises aimed at improving specific brain functions. In this view, preventing Alzheimer’s is not the main or only premise (or objective) of brain training. Rather, improving quality of life and cognitive performance is. The same as one goes to a health club and engages in a workout circuit to improve physical abilities, brain training can be viewed as a “mental workout” to help maintain a variety of cognitive abilities relevant to our work and life.

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This new online resource is based on the content from the book The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness (May 2009, $19.95), by Alvaro Fernandez and Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg.

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