Mental Exercise Helps the Brain "Work Around" the Damage of Alzheimer's Disease

Surveys show that when people think about their later years, their top concern is about how they will age mentally. Will their memory and thinking remain sharp? Will they develop Alzheimer's disease or a related condition?

We can take steps to protect our brains by following an all-around wellness routine: managing our health conditions, eating a healthy diet, exercising, sleeping well and caring for our emotional health. Just as important, mental stimulation can help keep us sharp in our later years.

A recent study from the University of California, Berkeley offers insight into why exercising our brains is so important. Said the researchers, "The human brain is capable of a neural workaround that compensates for the buildup of beta-amyloid, a destructive protein associated with Alzheimer's disease."

In the past, it was assumed that anyone whose brain had these beta-amyloid deposits would have noticeable signs of dementia. But the use of sophisticated brain imagery has changed the way we think about this. It turns out that a percentage of people with beta-amyloid deposits show no outward signs of memory loss or decreased thinking ability.

To help understand why, the UC Berkeley team administered memory tests to a group of people. While none of the test subjects had any signs of mental decline, brain scans showed that 16 of them had beta-amyloid deposits in their brain, while the remaining 55 did not. The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe and compare the brain activity of the two groups. Said study author Dr. William Jagust, "Generally, the groups performed equally well in the tasks, but it turned out that for people with beta-amyloid deposits in the brain, the more detailed and complex their memory, the more brain activity there was. It seems that their brain has found a way to compensate for the presence of the proteins associated with Alzheimer's."

Why would some older adults with beta-amyloid deposits be able to "work around" the damage, while others developed dementia? Previous studies have suggested that mentally stimulating activity encourages new connections between brain cells. Says Dr. Jagust, "I think it's very possible that people who spend a lifetime involved in cognitively stimulating activity have brains that are better able to adapt to potential damage."

What kinds of activities provide good brain exercise? Commercial "brain game" products aren't the only way to give our minds a good workout. Reading, writing, playing cards, taking part in musical activities and chatting on the Internet all provide mental stimulation. Experts believe that novelty is especially protective. Think outside the box! Try a new hobby, do things in a different way, take up a new creative pursuit. It's never too late to establish good brain workout habits—and it certainly also is never too early.

The University of California, Berkeley study appeared in the Sept. 2014 issue of Nature Neuroscience

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