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Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


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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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters, and more, SharpBrains is an independent market research firm and think tank tracking health and performance applications of brain science.