"Brain training" may delay Alzheimer's diseaseBut may speed up decline once symptoms appear
Many people believe that they can "train" their brain the way they can train their body, by giving it mental workouts such as crosswords, sudoku and other puzzles. Now a new study suggests that there may be some basis to this belief, as regular mental stimulation appears to delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease.
But the study also discovered that if symptoms of dementia eventually appear, the resulting decline in mental ability can be more rapid in these cases.
Researchers at Rush University Medical Centre in Chicago evaluated the mental activities of 1,157 people aged 65 or older without dementia over a 12 year period. Each person in the study was assigned a grade on a 5 point scale which measured how much time they spend each day processing information, for instance by reading, watching TV or working on a crossword puzzle or jigsaw.
For each point awarded, the study found that for each additional point on the scale there was a 50 per cent slower decline in mental ability as measured by a series of tests.
But for participants who were diagnosed with Alzheimer's there was a 42 per cent faster decline for each point on the scale assigned to them.
Explaining these paradoxical results, the authors of the study suggest that increased mental activity can help the brain maintain normal levels of mental behaviour during the early stages of the disease - i.e. the "brain training" does not actually delay the disease, it just helps to mask its effects.
Study author Dr Robert Wilson said: "In effect, these results suggest that the benefit of delaying the initial appearance of cognitive impairment comes at the cost of more rapid dementia progression - it does however reduce the overall amount of time that a person may suffer from dementia."
Dr Susanne Sorensen, head of research at the Alzheimer’s Society, said: "The jury is still out on whether pouring over a crossword or enjoying a good book could keep your brain ticking over for longer.
"This robust study adds considerable weight to the argument that, at least in later life, it could and it may even delay the symptoms of dementia."
"However although the symptoms are delayed, there is no evidence changes in the brain associated with dementia have been reduced. That the brain is allowed to deteriorate to a larger degree before symptoms like memory loss become apparent could explain why the condition seems to progress more quickly after diagnosis" Dr Sorensen added, calling for more research into this effect.
The study is published in the journal Neurology.
This article was published on Thu 2 September 2010
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