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Lay off working out for even a couple of weeks and the muscles get flabbier. Switching around the exercise routine and adding yoga or dancing helps stave off boredom and adds more fun and flexibility to the results. The same is true for the brain, except flexing those muscles has been proven to do more than educate and entertain – they help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.
Like arm or leg muscles, study after study has shown that the “Use it or Lose it” concept applies in the mind too. The most recent research, published this week in Neurology, shows that adding new skills or interests – whether taking classes, developing a craft hobby or joining a book group — in middle age keeps the mind sharper in later years to ward off Alzheimer’s.
The powers of intellectual engagement or mental stimuli help keep the mind exercised as one ages. Painting, doing crossword puzzles, even socializing and reading have all shown positive benefits in preserving cognitive function in the later years. The key thing is not to keep doing activities from adolescence on , but developing new activities in middle age, according to the new Mayo Clinic Study of Aging written about in the neurology publication.
The Mayo Clinic research is based on an Alzheimer’s study involving 256 people in their late 80s. The participants filled out comprehensive questionnaires that detailed their typical activities starting at age 50 and over the next 30 years. They also asked about their activities prior to the start of the study and got their health histories and medical records.
They followed up with the participants every 15 months for four years. The follow ups involved in-person mental status checkups. They studied reasoning, problem-solving, memory, language and visual-spatial skills.
Just over 47 percent of the study participants (121 of the 256) developed some memory deficits during the study. Those deficits did not affect their day-to-day functioning, but could eventually progress into dementia. While there were genetic markers that showed some were at a greater risk for the deficits, the activities the participants engaged in made a difference is their risk for memory problems by their 80s.
The research showed that engaging in regular social activity in mid- as well as late in life helped prevent Alzheimer’s by flexing brain muscles actually reduced the risk of developing mild cognitive issues by 55 percent. Taking on new craft projects in from mid-life on dropped the risk of intellectual decline by 45 percent. Even using a computer later in life made a difference; their likelihood of developing mild cognitive impairments were 53 percent less than those who did not.
Other studies have shown that people with high blood pressure, suffering from depression or dealing with other chronic conditions are generally more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment. However, keeping busy and engaging in relaxing activities like crafts can help with them too.
The research team found that the earlier people start these types of mentally engaging activities and continue through late in life, “the stronger the benefits they are likely to reap from these activities,” according to the lead study author Rosebud O. Roberts. Doing something stimulating builds new brain connections and strengthens old connections.
The findings suggest activities that are flexing brain muscles helps keep it ‘alive’ and help to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, according to Roberts. They did not test which activities had what impact, but trying new activities and hobbies in midlife had an impact. So, anyone for Words With Friends?
By Dyanne Weiss