Back to School – or Work – to Prevent Alzheimer’s?

  • Continue learning to prevent Alzheimer'sWhile a Mediterranean diet and consistent exercise may not guarantee a life free from Alzheimer’s disease, they are considered two components of a lifestyle that may be beneficial. Maintaining a healthy social life has also been shown to help keep our brains sharp. In the news now is yet another lifestyle component – that of challenging ourselves mentally.  This could mean that we continue working later into our lives, return to school to learn something new, or pursue cognitively demanding hobbies.


    Recent news has focused on a French study that suggested that people who put off retiring from their jobs were less likely to get Alzheimer’s disease. This study was led by Carole Dufouil, director of research in neuroepidemiology at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research. The researchers analyzed health and insurance records of more than 429,000 self-employed workers and found a three percent reduction in dementia risk for each extra year that they worked before retirement.

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    Dr. James Galvin, director of the Pearl Barlow Center for Memory Evaluation and Treatment at the NYU Langone School of Medicine suggested that we keep several things in mind when interpreting the study’s meaning. He suggested that “self-employed workers may be inherently different than company-employed workers, with differences in skill sets, work environment, stress and social mobility that might affect the study's results.” Galvin was not involved in the study.


    Interpreting the message sent by this study is tricky. Not all jobs offer the same mental stimulation, and many volunteer or self-directed activities offer exceptional mental stimulation and challenge. According to Heather Snyder, director of medical and scientific operations for the Alzheimer's Association, based in Chicago, "There seems to be growing evidence that staying cognitively [mentally] active is really important to reducing a person's risk, and perhaps professional activity may be one of those cognitive activities. What we know is that things that promote lifelong learning seem to be beneficial. But that may mean different things for different people.”


    Research appearing in a recent edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, led by Dr. Robert Freidland, found elderly people who regularly read, play mentally challenging games or pursue a challenging hobby are 2 ½ times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.  

    Freidland’s researchers questioned 193 people about their participation in 26 different hobbies. The list included physical activities, like gardening and knitting, intellectual hobbies like reading and chess plus performing activities such as music. It also included passive ones such as television viewing. The study found that the people who developed Alzheimer's had, in their past, done less of every activity except watching TV.


    It would be wonderful to suggest that simply watching less television or other passive time consuming activities would prevent Alzheimer’s in our future, but of course, it’s not that simple. Research has found that Alzheimer’s, which is a degenerative brain disorder, is slower to appear and develop among people who are in intellectually demanding professions, but they don’t necessarily agree about what this means. Also, while studies tell us one thing, many of us know of brilliant academics who have developed Alzheimer’s disease while still actively working in demanding jobs. It’s obvious that no one rule will protect all of us.


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    Still, the study about working longer or actively pursuing mentally challenging activities likely has some validity when viewed over a large population. There will always be exceptions to every finding. Some people eat terrible diets, smoke two packs of cigarettes a day and drink significant amounts of alcohol, yet they live to a ripe old age with their brains intact. Still, few scientists or even laymen would suggest that this is the most likely route to better health. Until much more is known about the real cause of Alzheimer’s disease, and a reliable cure is found, we are left with lifestyle changes as our best resource for aging well. We needn’t literally go back to school in order to preserve our brains, but it’s becoming clear that continually exercising our brains as well as our bodies may give us a better chance of preserving our cognitive function.


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    HealthDay News (2013, July 13) Putting Off Retirement May Help Stave Off Alzheimer's. Retrieved from

    Weil, A. (2013 July Newsletter) Secret Danger of Retirement. Retrieved from


    ABCnews (March 6, 2013) Reading, Chess May Help Fight Alzheimer's. Retrieved from



Published On: August 05, 2013