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.

Keep learn­ing by read­ing more arti­cles in the Resources sec­tion, and also please con­sid­er join­ing our free month­ly Brain Fit­ness eNewsletter

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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