Scientists Urge Mental Exercise
02:47 PM ET 07/24/00
By Lauran Neergaard
(AP Medical Writer)
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The brain is like a muscle: Use it or lose it.
That's the growing conclusion of research that shows fogged
memory and slowed wit are not inevitable consequences of getting
old, and there are steps people can take to protect their brains.
Mental exercise seems crucial. Benefits start when parents read
to tots and depend heavily on education, but scientists say it's
never too late to start jogging the gray matter.
People have to get physical, too. Bad memory is linked to heart
disease, diabetes and a high-fat diet, all risks people can counter
by living healthier lives.
In fact, provocative new research suggests these
brain-protective steps, mental and physical, may be strong enough
even to help influence who gets Alzheimer's disease.
``There are some things that, if you know you have a family
history (of Alzheimer's) and you're just 20 to 30 years old, you
can start doing to increase your protective factors,'' said Dr.
Amir Soas of Case Western Reserve University Medical School in
It's also good advice for the average baby boomer hoping to stay
sharp, or the mom priming her child for a lifelong healthy brain.
Most important: ``Read, read, read,'' Soas said. Do crossword
puzzles. Pull out the chessboard or Scrabble. Learn a foreign
language or a new hobby. ``Anything that stimulates the brain to
think,'' he said.
And cut back on TV, Soas insists. ``When you watch television,
your brain goes into neutral,'' he said. So much so that Case
Western plans to study whether people who contract Alzheimer's
watched more TV throughout life than healthy seniors.
The stereotype of the forgetful grandma has its roots in
now-outdated dogma. Just a few years ago, scientists believed the
brain was wired forever before age 5, and that over the ensuing
decades a person irrevocably lost neurons and crucial brain
circuitry until eventually mental decline became noticeable.
Not quite. Scientists now know the brain continually rewires and
adapts itself, even in old age; large brain-cell growth continues
into the teen years; and even the elderly can grow at least some
So cognitive decline doesn't have to be inevitable. Indeed,
mental tests given for 10 years to almost 6,000 older people found
70 percent maintained brain power as they aged, lead researcher
Mary Haan of the University of Michigan told an international
Alzheimer's meeting this month.
What keeps brains healthy? Clues come from Alzheimer's research.
Case Western scientists studied 550 people and found those less
mentally and physically active in middle age were three times more
likely to get Alzheimer's as they grayed. Particularly protective:
increasing intellectual activity during adulthood.
Numerous studies show people with less education have higher
risks of Alzheimer's than the better-educated. Haan found less than
a ninth-grade education a key threshold; other studies suggest a
difference even between holders of bachelor's and master's degrees.
It's not just formal education. Reading habits between ages 6
and 18 appear crucial predictors of cognitive function decades
later, said Dr. David Bennett of Chicago's Rush University. The
theory: Challenge the brain early to build up more ``cognitive
reserve'' to counter brain-damaging disease later. Bennett is
preparing to test that by counting neurons in autopsied brains.
And remember that brain-muscle analogy? Brain scans show mental
``exercising,'' such as London cabbies do while navigating without
a map or pianists do when practicing, makes spots important for
those intellectual challenges grow while less-used regions shrink.
But physical health is important, too. A healthy brain needs
lots of oxygen pumped through healthy arteries. Haan studied people
who have a gene called ApoE4, which significantly increases the
risk of Alzheimer's. Brain function of gene carriers declined four
times faster with age if they also had hardened arteries or
diabetes. High-fat diets increased the risk seven times, Case
Western researchers found.
That means exercising and eating right _ the very things that
prevent heart disease and diabetes _ helps the brain, too. And Haan
said it spotlights the next research frontier: Testing whether
cholesterol and blood pressure treatments might prevent dementia.
EDITOR'S NOTE _ Lauran Neergaard covers health and medical
issues for The Associated Press.
On the Net: American Geriatrics Society:
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