Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia, affects about one in nine people age 65 and older in the United States, reports the Alzheimer’s Association. And many people experience mild cognitive impairment (MCI) as they age, which can be “a midpoint between normal cognitive aging and dementia.” Brenna RennPhD and Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, tells Better life.
Now, a study from Columbia University and Duke University published in the October 2022 edition of the NEJM recordings confirms that one popular activity in particular could keep our brains fit as we age. Read on to find out what it is and how researchers say it helps.
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Experts say the brains of people with dementia atrophy at a higher and faster rate than usual. “The brain shrinkage associated with Alzheimer’s disease is thought to be caused by accumulated plaque damage caused by a type of protein,” Renn says. “However, it is unclear why these proteins malfunction and accumulate – and whether they are a cause or consequence of Alzheimer’s disease.”
Michael RoizenMD, Chief Wellness Officer Emeritus at the Cleveland Clinic, author of The reboot of old ageand founder of The Great Age Reboot adds, “Stress is one of the main causes of brain shrinkage in normal humans, but lack of connections and lack of use are major factors.”
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Sandy PetersonDNP and senior vice president of health and wellness at Pegasus Senior Living, says stimulating your brain stimulates connections between nerve cells and could help generate new cells and protect against cell loss.
“Any mentally stimulating activity should help develop your brain,” she notes. “Read, learn a new language, find opportunities for ‘brain exercises’, such as word games or math problems. Experiment with things that require manual dexterity as well as mental effort, such as drawing, painting and other handicrafts.”
For this recent study, researchers divided 107 participants with MCI into two groups: one trained in web-based crossword puzzles and one trained in cognitive video games. After 78 weeks, the crossword puzzle group showed greater cognitive improvement and less brain shrinkage.
“The results [were] the opposite of what the authors really expected to find,” says Claire Sexon, DPhil and Senior Director of Science Programs and Outreach at the Alzheimer’s Association. She explained that the researchers expected to see more impressive results with the specially designed video games, as opposed to the program modeled after the usual crossword puzzles. “There’s been a lot of research in the area,” she adds, noting that “we really need more trials like this, to really better look at cause and effect.”
Some illnesses act quickly and seem to appear out of nowhere, but dementia is not one of them. As Petersen explains, “Progressive neurocognitive disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, can begin when an individual is between the ages of 30 and 40… [but] often we don’t notice the effects until years later, when the person gets lost in familiar places, forgets important appointments, makes reckless financial decisions, or is noted as having a poor safety conscience. “
“We know dementia doesn’t develop overnight,” says Sexton. “From brain studies, we can see changes in the brain…key characteristics, such as levels of amyloid and tau in the brain, levels of amyloid starting to build up 10, 20 years before anyone is diagnosed.”
These changes in the brain, she explains, can begin to affect cognition years before an official diagnosis of dementia. Forgetting your keys or why you walked into a room isn’t necessarily cause for concern, she says. Instead, pay attention to changes in memory and mental behavior, things that “[interfere] with people’s daily activities.”
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Stimulating your brain with crossword puzzles and other mental challenges is a great start, but lots of other things can also help keep your brain sharp as you get older.
Petersen recommends eating a healthy diet, controlling your blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol, and avoiding tobacco and excessive alcohol consumption. She says, “Nutrition is one of the keys to a healthy brain. People who follow a Mediterranean-style diet of fish, nuts, unsaturated oils (olive oil), fruits, vegetables, and plant sources of protein have been shown by some research. be less likely to develop cognitive impairment and dementia.”
And Renn adds, “Everything we do to keep our bodies healthy will also help protect our brains – and therefore, our cognitive health, without risks or side effects.”
“Pay attention to your mental health and sleep hygiene,” advises Petersen. “People who are anxious, depressed or sleep poorly tend to score poorly on tests of cognitive function. Although there is no correlation between these factors and cognitive decline, healthy aging is supported with good sleep and a positive attitude.” And “stay social,” she continues. “Strong friendships and frequent interactions with others have been associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline.”
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