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Brain Games May Cut Alzheimer's Risk

< Jan. 25, 2012 > -- Staying active mentally when you're young and middle-aged may help protect your brain against the ravages of Alzheimer's disease later in life.

Photo of woman playing piano as another woman watches

Researchers at the University of California Berkeley found that activities like reading, writing, and playing games as a young or middle-aged adult seemed to prevent the buildup of a brain protein linked to Alzheimer's.

Although studies haven't proved that the protein, called beta-amyloid, actually causes Alzheimer's, it is present at higher levels in the brains of people with this degenerative disease.

"This is the first study to report that lifetime cognitive activity is directly linked to amyloid deposition in the brain," says study author Susan Landau, Ph.D.

Lifestyle choices

And, she adds, the brain-stimulating activity is likely just one of several healthy lifestyle practices like regular exercise and a nutritious diet that contribute to brain health.

For the study, Dr. Landau's team looked at 65 healthy people, with an average age of about 76. In addition, they tested 10 people with Alzheimer's disease whose average was nearly 75 and 11 young adults with an average age of 25.

The researchers used a special imaging technique called positron emission tomography, or PET, which is able to see beta-amyloid plaque in the brain. They also used special psychological tests to see what effect cognitive stimulation might have on Alzheimer's risk.

More activity, less protein

According to the study results, published in the Archives of Neurology, participants who kept mentally active when they were young and middle-aged had the least amount of beta-amyloid.

Those older adults with the most activity had amyloid levels similar to the young adults, and those who engaged in the fewest mental activities had amyloid levels similar to the Alzheimer's patients.

Why this kind of mental stimulation reduces the amount of beta-amyloid isn't known, says William Jagust, M.D., who was part of Dr. Landau's team.

"The environment may affect the amount of amyloid that's deposited," Dr. Jagust says. "This kind of lifetime cognitive activity may make people's brains more efficient. And if your brain is functioning better, it's possible that would result in producing less of this amyloid."

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Preventing Dementia

Age and certain other risk factors for Alzheimer's disease can't be controlled. But you can reduce your odds of developing the condition. The latest findings show you can reduce risk by:

  • Not smoking. People who light up in midlife have more than double the chances of developing dementia, including Alzheimer's disease, later in life.

  • Controlling your cholesterol. High levels of LDL ("bad") cholesterol, may harm your brain as well as your heart. And an HDL ("good") cholesterol of 55 mg/dL or higher might protect you from Alzheimer's disease. Other conditions that damage the heart and blood vessels-such as diabetes and high blood pressure-may also contribute to the risk for Alzheimer's disease.

  • Drinking in moderation. About 10 percent of all cases of dementia are alcohol-related. In contrast to heavy drinking, which damages the brain, moderate sipping might have brain benefits.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

Online Resources

(Our Organization is not responsible for the content of Internet sites.)

Alzheimer's Association - Brain Health

Archives of Neurology - Lifetime of Cognitive Engagement and Low Beta-Amyloid Deposition

National Institute on Aging - About Alzheimer's Disease: Risk Factors and Prevention