I have a vivid memory of my mom during much of my adult life. Every morning, she’d pick up the newspapers (my parents subscribed to two daily papers) and quickly found the section with the crossword puzzles. Mom would then proceed to work her way through the clues, carefully putting each letter in the box. A few times, I was up ahead of her and snagged the newspaper, taking my turn at trying to figure out the cues. When Mom would enter the breakfast room, she’d give me a look and say, “Give me the puzzle. You know I’m doing this in order to fight off Alzheimer’s.”
Fast forward to September 2009 when Dad and I attended a conference on Alzheimer’s at Texas A&M University’s Bush Conference Center. I found myself stunned when the keynote speaker, Dr. David Snowdon made a pronouncement: “If I had a choice of doing a crossword puzzle or exercising in order to prevent Alzheimer’s, I’d choose the exercise.” Immediately, I thought of Mom.
In his book, “Aging with Grace: What the Nun Study Teaches Us About Leading Longer, Healthier, and More Meaningful Lives,” Dr. Snowdon reports on Sister Nicolette, who lived the longest without Alzheimer’s of all of the nuns who participated in this landmark study. He asked Sister Nicolette why she had remained healthier than the other nuns. Her response: she walked several miles a day, which she started to do when she was 70 years of age.
Dr. Snowdon noted that Sister Nicolette’s exercise regime helped her preserve cardiovascular health (including avoiding stroke) and mobility. “In addition, Sister Nicolette’s brain would have benefitted. Exercise improves blood flow, bringing the brain the oxygen and nutrients it needs to function well. Exercise also reduces stress hormones and increases chemicals that nourish brain cells. These changes help to ward off depression and some kinds of damage to brain tissue.”
Why is maintaining cardiovascular health important? Dr. Snowdon noted later in the book that by 1999 his research team had analyzed the brains of 241 nuns, whose age at death ranged from 76 to 103. He writes, “…our research strongly suggests that small strokes serve as a trip switch in people who have significant numbers of Alzheimer’s lesions, causing the symptoms of dementia to emerge. It also strongly suggests that stroke-free brains can compensate for Alzheimer’s lesions to some extent and mute the symptoms of the disease.”
That’s why Dr. Snowdon’s recommendation on how to successfully age shouldn’t come as a surprise: a person should identify a sport or exercise activity that he or she will do regularly (at least four days a week). With that as a baseline, I thought about Mom’s activity level in the 1980s and 1990s, prior to when her lung disease really kicked in. Mom loved to garden, but that was a hit or miss activity that could easily be limited by the weather or the season. She also would clean house, but again, that wasn’t an everyday occurrence. No regular walking, swimming, or biking. Instead, her only routine activity - doing her crossword puzzles. So the lesson I’ve learned from hearing Dr. Snowdon is that doing crossword puzzles are great, but the real priority needs to be making time for regular exercise.