Delay Alzheimer's Symptoms by Life-long Learning

Caregiver, patient expert

Nearly all of us know that if we don't use our muscles as we age, we'll lose muscle mass. The same theory seems to hold true when it comes to keeping our minds sharp. Computer games, word games, crossword puzzles, Sudoku and other challenging mental pursuits have been advised as methods of keeping the mind healthy as we age. Now, a recent study has shown that by pursuing life-long learning, even people who are genetically at risk for Alzheimer's disease may be able to stave off symptoms for years.

A study conducted by Mayo Clinic researchers, published in JAMA Neurology, shows that cognitive stimulation from a challenging profession or lifelong pursuit of music, reading, languages or other interests can keep the symptoms of Alzheimer's at bay for up to a decade.

Mayo Clinic researchers found that among those with an average education and job complexity, brain stimulating pastimes can delay onset of dementia by about 7.3 years when compared to people with low levels of mental stimulation as they age. For those who carry the ApoE4 gene, which is a risk factor for Alzheimer's that is found in about 25 percent of the U.S. population, brain stimulating hobbies can delay the onset of the disease by about 3.5 years. The scientists did not attempt to predict the delay of Alzheimer's among those in the highly educated, intellectually active group who are not genetic carriers because the time-frame where Alzheimer's symptoms may be delayed exceeded 10 years which was beyond the scope of this study.

The researchers evaluated 1,995 Minnesota residents between the ages of 70 and 89 who didn't have dementia symptoms. They looked at the volunteers' education and occupation as well as their cognitive activity during mid- to late- life. The scientists discovered that the more education a person had, and the more cognitively complex their employment, the higher people scored in memory tests as they aged. The study leaders concluded that lifetime intellectual enrichment might delay the onset of cognitive impairment and may even be used as a successful preventive intervention.

What does this information mean for people in their 50s, 60s and upward?   It means that we should never stop learning.

Do people with more cognitive resources simply cover symptoms longer?

Researchers were at one time convinced that people with more education had more resources on hand to cover Alzheimer's symptoms so the disease seemed to develop later.

While that theory may also hold true, a study led by Dennis Selkoe, co-director of the Center for Neurologic Diseases in the Department of Neurology at Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH), provides "specific, pre-clinical scientific evidence supporting the concept that prolonged and intensive stimulation by an enriched environment especially regular exposure to new activities may have beneficial effects in delaying one of the key negative factors in Alzheimer's disease."

The key factor to which Selkoe is referring is the weakened communication between nerve cells affecting memory. This study, too, seems to suggest that actual brain protection rather than simply the ability to mask symptoms may be at work in people who regularly challenge their brains.

Recent studies have shown that not only formal cognitive training, but reading novels, playing music and other learning-for-pleasure activities can help keep the mind strong.

While scientists have long suggested that something as simple as brushing your teeth with the non-dominant hand or driving different routes to work may help keep the mind stimulated, it's more fun for most of us to read, play music or learn a new language than to remember to switch hands while doing routine tasks. If something is enjoyable, we're more apt to follow through.

The takeaway? Keep doing those puzzles, playing computer games, reading for fun and playing music. Whether or not these activities actually prevent Alzheimer's or simply put the disease symptoms off for a few years we're likely to enjoy our later years more. That's an undeniable payoff.

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Bloomberg News. (2014, June 23) Alzheimer's delayed almost a decade by life of cerebral pursuits.   Retrieved from  Study: Alzheimer's Delayed Almost a Decade by Life of Cerebral Pursuits. Retrieved from

Montemayor-Quellenberg, M. (2013, March 6) Environment counts, Alzheimer's research suggests exposure to new activities may delay onset of dementia. Harvard Gazette. Retrieved from

Harmon, K. (2010, July 27) More Education Delays Dementia Signs - But Not Damage: A new study of hundreds of human brains helps to explain why education seems to help stave off dementia. Scientific American. Retrieved from

Fischer Center for Alzheimer's Education. The Decades-Long Slide of Alzheimer's. Retrieved from