A life of brain-teasing could beat Alzheimer's disease with reading, writing and puzzles
Keeping the brain active by playing games, reading and writing throughout life is linked to lower levels of a brain protein involved in Alzheimer's, claim researchers.
New evidence shows people should 'use it or lose it' when it comes to brainpower, because mind-stretching activities may delay age-related memory loss in later life.
Experts have discovered that those who have kept their brains active – from youth to old age – have reduced levels of beta amyloid protein, which forms a major part of plaques in the brains of Alzheimer's sufferers.
A new study shows mind-stretching activities may delay age-related memory loss in later life
In Britain, around 700,000 people have Alzheimer's, the most common form of dementia.
One of the key characteristics of the condition is the damage to brain cells caused by tiny fragments of protein called beta amyloid plaques.
These clump together and stick to neurons, or nerve cells, in the brain, stopping the cells from talking to each other, which disrupts memory, mood and behaviour.
U.S. researchers investigated beta amyloid protein levels in 65 healthy older people aged 76 years, using PET scans and radioactive tags that attached to the protein, and their levels of cognitive activity using lifestyle questionnaires.
These were compared with results from 10 patients with Alzheimer's aged around 75 years and 11 healthy young people, aged 25 years.
They found lower levels of amyloid deposited in the brains of people involved in cognitively stimulating activities throughout their lives, such as reading, writing and playing games.
Researchers used PET scans and lifestyle questionnaires to formulate the study
This was especially marked for people who were 'brain active' in their early and middle years, says a report in the journal Archives of Neurology.
Older people with the highest level of brain activity had amyloid levels on a par with young people, and much lower than Alzheimer's patients.
People with the lowest levels of brain activity had amyloid levels on a par with Alzheimer's patients.
Lead researcher Susan Landau, of the University of California, Berkeley, said: 'We report a direct association, suggesting that lifestyle factors found in individuals with high cognitive engagement may prevent or slow deposition of beta amyloid, perhaps influencing the onset and progression of Alzheimer's disease.
'Cognitive activity is just one component of a complex set of lifestyle practices linked to Alzheimer's disease risk,' she added.
'However, the present findings extend previous findings that link cognitive stimulation and Alzheimer's disease risk.'
Previous research suggested the protective effect of mind-stretching activities against dementia may come from maintaining the brain's ability to process information.
Dr Anne Corbett, research manager at the Alzheimer's Society, said: 'This is an interesting initial finding that echoes the results from previous studies.
'However, the research involved only a very small number of people and we do not know if they went on to develop dementia. It is too early to say whether keeping your brain active can reduce your risk of developing dementia, or how this might work.
'However, we would encourage anyone who enjoys cognitively stimulating activities such as reading, writing and playing games to keep it up.
'The best way to reduce your risk of dementia is to exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet, don't smoke and get your blood pressure and cholesterol checked by your GP.'
Dr Simon Ridley, head of research at Alzheimer's Research UK, the UK's leading dementia research charity, said: 'The authors of this small study suggest that there may be benefits to keeping an active mind throughout life, not just in old age.
'Whilst the study found an association between cognitive activity and the levels of amyloid protein in the brain of healthy elderly volunteers, we cannot conclude that one directly causes the other.
'It would be important to follow these healthy participants and see whether those that reported higher cognitive activity were less likely to develop Alzheimer's in the long run.
'With 820,000 people in the UK living with dementia, it is essential that we understand the factors that can lower our risk, so we must invest in more research.'