Exercising Your Brain Through Learning May Help Ward Off Alzheimer's

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • I’ve come to be a firm believer in exercise – the mental kind. By stretching our brains through a variety of activities throughout our lives, we not only make our lives more fulfilling, but we also may be protecting ourselves against Alzheimer’s.

    A new study out of the University of California-Berkley is the first to find people who participate in a variety of activities throughout their lives may decrease the level of amyloids, a brain protein linked to Alzheimer’s disease.  These researchers used an imaging technique in order to see beta amyloid plaque in the brain. They also used neuropsychological tests that allowed them to identify effects that cognitive stimulation have.

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    This small study involved participants who were 65 healthy people whose average age was 76. The researchers also tested 10 people who had Alzheimer’s disease who were on average 75 years old. A third group comprised of 11 people who were on average 25 years old also was tested. The researchers found that engaging in brain-stimulating activities during youth and middle-aged had the least amount of the beta amyloid plaque. Furthermore older adults who participated in the most intellectual-stimulating activities had amyloid levels that were comparable to young individuals whereas older adults who participated in the fewest of these activities had amyloid levels that matched the people who had Alzheimer’s.

    This information may especially true for men. A new study from the Mayo Clinic found that men have a higher risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which often precedes Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers analyzed data from 1,450 people who were between 70-89 years of age and who didn’t have dementia. The researchers’ baseline data was taken in October 2004 and then follow-up assessments were conducted over a three-year period. USA Today reported that the assessments measured neurological, psychological and mental status as well as executive function, visual-spatial skills and memory.

    At the end of the Mayo Clinic study, 296 participants had some level of cognitive impairment. Interestingly, men’s risk of developing MCI was 40% higher than women and, with the exception of those in the 85-89 age group, new cases of MCI were higher in men.  And going back to my main point in this sharepost, the researchers also found that mental stimulation seems to make a difference. They found that men in the study who didn’t have a college education had a surprisingly high risk of mental impairment.

    So based on this information, I’d suggest that you find various ways to “exercise” your brain. For one, you can focus on the skills that were used in the assessment for the Mayo Clinic study. These skills include:

    • Executive Function - The National Center for Learning Disabilities describes executive function as “a set of mental processes that connect past experience with present action. People use it to perform activities such as planning, organizing, strategizing, paying attention to and remembering details, and managing time and space.” This skill allows you to make plans, keep track of time, meet deadlines, incorporate past knowledge into discussions, evaluate ideas, reflect on work, ask for help, seek more information, engage in group dynamics, and change our minds and make corrects while thinking, reading and writing.
    • Visual-spatial skills – According to Harvard professor Dr. Howard Gardner, visual-spatial skills include puzzle building, reading, writing, sense of direction, sketching, painting, and interpreting visual images.

    In addition, you also may want to incorporate activities from seven learning styles that use different parts of the brain. According to Learning Styles Online.com, these seven learning styles are:

    • Visual/spatial (which I described above)
    • Aural (auditory-musical) – the use of sounds and music
    • Verbal (linguistic) – using words in both speech and writing.
    • Physical (kinesthetic) – using the body, hands and sense of touch.
    • Logical (mathematical) – using logic, reasoning and systems.
    • Social (interpersonal) – learning in groups or with other people.
    • Solitary (intrapersonal) – working alone and using self-study.

    You can easily incorporate these different skills in your daily life. For instance, balancing your checkbook uses the logical learning style. Participating in a book group involves both verbal and social learning styles. Gardening involves the physical learning style  through the actual planting process and also involves executive function skills through planning the garden and deciding which plants will grow in a particular season.

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    So my advice to you: find wide-ranging interests and learn more about them. You’ll enjoy life more and also may build up your brain's ability to fight Alzheimer’s.

Published On: January 31, 2012