Study says active mind cuts risk of Alzheimer's
By André Picard

PUBLIC HEALTH REPORTER Globe and Mail
Wednesday, February 13, 2002 – Print Edition, Page A1

Brain-stimulating activities such as reading newspapers and playing bridge can reduce seniors' risk of developing Alzheimer's disease by almost half, a study says.

Researchers at Chicago's Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center say people who participate routinely in activities such as crossword puzzles, watching TV and visiting museums suffer far less cognitive decline than those who do not.

The research, published in today's edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, lends credence to the "use-it-or-lose-it" theory about dementia, the notion that people who stop challenging themselves after retirement rapidly lose brainpower and become more vulnerable to neurodegenerative illnesses.

"We are asked constantly about the use-it-or-lose-it approach to maintaining memory," said Elisabeth Koss, assistant director of the U.S. National Institute of Aging Alzheimer's Disease Centers Program.

"This study provides important new evidence that there may be something to the notion of increased cognitive activity and reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease."

But Dr. Koss said that while the research provides important clues, more work is needed to find which activities best protect the brain.

Scientists looked at seven activities that involve information-processing: watching TV; listening to the radio; reading newspapers or magazines; reading books; playing games such as cards, checkers, crosswords or other puzzles; and visiting museums.

The frequency of participation in the activities is rated on a five-point scale, with the highest point assigned to participating in at least one of the activities daily, and the lowest point awarded to engaging in the activities once a year or less.

During the five-year study, those who scored highest were 47-per-cent less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease than those who scored lowest.

The research was conducted among participants of the Religious Orders Study, a long-term examination of aging among Roman Catholic nuns, priests and brothers across the United States.

This study looked at 700 people over the age of 65 who were dementia-free at the outset of the research. During the follow-up, 111 participants developed Alzheimer's.

Robert Wilson of the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center said the research results are intriguing, but he cautioned that it is unclear why brain-stimulating activities lower a person's risk.

It may be, as a number of scientists have theorized, that these activities stimulate the brain, strengthening information-processing that helps offset age-related declines in brainpower.

But it may be that those who are prone to diseases such as Alzheimer's are less likely to engage in stimulating activities because, even years before their symptoms become apparent, they experience some difficulties.

"The associations among cognitive activity, Alzheimer's disease and cognitive function are extremely complex," Dr. Wilson said. "Additional study . . . will help to tell us whether such enjoyable and easy-to-do activities could be employed in some way to reduce the risk of memory decline and loss."

Dr. Wilson said that all the study's participants have agreed to donate their brains, which could provide important clues in the years to come.

An estimated 364,000 Canadians suffer from Alzheimer's disease and related dementias, a number expected to more than double by 2031.

According to the Alzheimer Society, an estimated 83,200 cases of dementia were diagnosed in 2001. Age is important: One in 13 people over the age of 65 suffer from Alzheimer's, as do one in four people over the age of 85.

The disease costs the economy about $5.5-billion annually.

While no treatment can stop the progression of the disease, several help with some symptoms. It is unclear what causes Alzheimer disease, though it is likely a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental factors.