“There are no limitations to the mind except those we acknowledge"
- Napoleon Hill
Use it or lose it! Mental exercises for Alzheimer's disease (AD) are not only a powerful preventative measure; they can slow down, halt or even help to reverse the disease, believe it or not. The good news is you're never too old to start boosting your brainpower.
The brain is like muscles in your body in that if you exercise it you can make it stronger, but if you don't it will get weaker. And like physical exercise, you need to keep going a bit past your comfort level to keep improving. Unfortunately, normal day to day living doesn't always give you the mental stimulation you need.
50% less chance of getting AD
Studies have shown that staying mentally active can slash the chance of getting Alzheimer's disease by half (some researchers consider the risk is lowered even more – up to 75%)! And the Daily Telegraph in the United Kingdom reported that volunteers 65 years old and over who did just ten hours of training their memory, problem solving and reaction times, had mental abilities equivalent to people seven to fourteen years younger than those who didn't do the mental exercises.
Even the education you get when you are young seems to have a big influence on your chances of getting Alzheimer's disease. A study carried out in China showed that illiterates were five times more likely to get AD than high school graduates. Another study, this time in Sweden showed that those with less than a grade eight education were two and a half times more likely to get AD.
The higher the education you have when you are young, the lower the chance you'll get AD when you're old. The plaques and tangles in the brain (the physical signs of Alzheimer's) have less effect on the higher educated than the less educated.
Experiments have been carried out with rats that were given lead laced water to drink. Those living in a stimulating environment learned better than those who were isolated. It seems fairly conclusive that exercising your neurons keeps them functioning better.
Coupling the drug Aricept with regular mental stimulation dramatically slows the decline of Alzheimer's disease in people with mild or moderate disease compared with medications alone, a new research 2004 has confirmed.
When Alzheimer's patients participated in weekly sessions -- which involved reading and writing -- they retained more communication skills, functional abilities, emotional well-being, and quality of life, compared with those patients who were simply taking Aricept, reports researcher Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD, with the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas.
Aricept is widely used because it helps people with Alzheimer's disease retain memory and improves performance in other mental functions, writes Chapman. However, the improvements are fleeting; in Alzheimer's disease, a progressive brain disease, Aricept reduces functional decline by only 38% over one year's time when compared with placebo. Patients with Alzheimer's disease rarely get any treatments beyond medications like Aricept. However, a growing number of studies have shown that mental exercises can help with memory, verbal abilities, problem solving, calculations, overall functioning, and quality of life, Chapman notes.
In her study, Chapman enrolled 54 patients -- all with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease and taking Aricept. Each was randomly assigned to either get the "mental stimulation program" plus Aricept or to just take Aricept.
The two-month intervention program involved once-a-week sessions with each patient. Examples of the mental exercises included: verbally creating a story about a Normal Rockwell painting, providing detailed directions in scrambling eggs, interpreting proverbs, and choosing appropriate meanings for words. Each patient got weekly homework assignments, to work out with their caregivers. At the program's end, and during the next 10 months, each patient took a battery of tests to determine their progress.
In the mental stimulation Alzheimer's group, Chapman found a slower rate of decline in communication ability, functional ability, and emotional well-being. These patients also showed less apathy and irritability, and improved quality of life. "Whereas we expected the greatest benefit to appear immediately after the active intervention, the evidence of later-emerging benefits may arise from slowly changing habits in daily life," she writes. The homework assignments provided stimulation for good conversation with caregivers, Chapman explains. The exercises also helped them stay involved in their environment, she notes. "We believe this helped to maintain abilities and slow the rate of decline associated with Alzheimer's disease," she writes.
How does brain activity help?
Animal studies have shown that mental stimulation may help protect the brain by:
- Decreasing the hallmarks of Alzheimer's, such as increases in certain proteins (plaques and tangles).
- Supporting new nerve cell growth.
- Prompting communication between nerve cells.
By keeping your brain active with brain exercises or other engagement, you may help build up a reserve of brain cells and connections. You might even grow new brain cells. This is one explanation for the link between Alzheimer's and lower levels of education. Experts think that extra stimulation from education may protect the brain by strengthening brain cell connections.
Of course, neither education nor brain exercises provide an insurance policy against Alzheimer's. But they may help delay the onset of symptoms, prolonging a higher quality of life. And that could be worth a whole lot.
"There's been a long debate as to why people with a cognitively active lifestyle are less likely to experience cognitive decline," said researcher Robert S. Wilson, of the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. One idea is that keeping the brain active protects against the decline, while another school of thought proposes that people who are less cognitively active are really showing early signs of the disease (and so decreasing cognitive activity is just a consequence of cognitive decline). In fact, past research has suggested people who have healthier brains are more likely to read and practice other mind-enhancing activities.
The longitudinal study — meaning one in which participants are followed over time — is part of the Chicago Health and Aging Project, focusing on risk factors for Alzheimer's disease in four Chicago neighborhoods.
The latest findings suggest the protective effect may be at work. Essentially, the plaques and tangles are still forming on the brain, but people who stay cognitively active don't show signs of those brain plaques until later.
The researchers aren't sure what's going on in the brain to keep decline at bay for cognitively active people. But past brain-imaging studies offer clues.
One study over a three-year period of German medical students cramming for a sort of final exams found that their brains' hippocampus and neocortex had grown, Wilson said. Another study, focusing on jugglers, revealed corresponding changes in the parts of the brain devoted to juggling.
The size increase in various brain regions means that some people will have an extra buffer for the cognitive decline that inevitably comes with age. Or as Wilson puts it, the beefed-up brain regions give you "a little more mileage out of what you have."
Types of Activities
There are three criteria for the types of protective mental exercises. The most beneficial activities will meet all three. The mental exercises you choose should engage more than one of your senses, keep you focused and attentive and provide a change, or break, from your normal daily routine. The Alzheimer's Foundation of America provides a list of beneficial mental exercises. The list includes learning to play a musical instrument, doing jigsaw puzzles, learning a foreign language, taking classes and playing board games. Become a life-long learner by learning a new fact or skill every day. Avoid routine by regularly engaging in mental activities that are new to you. Engaging in these activities for 20 minutes each day at least three times per week may provide measurable protection.
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