Brain Stimulation Across Lifespan May Reduce Dementia
Engaging in lifestyle activities such as reading, writing or doing crossword puzzles throughout your lifespan may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease, reports the Archives of Neurology (2012; doi:10.1001/archneurol.2011.2748). Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading killer in the United States and currently has no cure.
Researchers believe that the buildup of a protein, beta-amyloid, in the brain is a leading pathological factor in Alzheimer’s. To provide more insight into the biological processes involved in the disease, investigators from the University of California, Berkeley, used positron emission topography (PET) scans to assess the association between lifestyle practices and amyloid deposits in healthy older adults.
“This is the first time [in a study that] cognitive activity level has been related to amyloid buildup in the brain,” said lead study author Susan M. Landau, PhD, research scientist at the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “Amyloid probably starts accumulating many years before symptoms appear. So it’s possible that by the time you have symptoms of Alzheimer’s, like memory problems, there is little that can be done to stop disease progression. The time for intervention may be much sooner, which is why we’re trying to identify whether lifestyle factors might be related to the earliest possible changes.”
Researchers recruited 65 cognitively normal adults aged 60 and above and asked them to provide information on how often they did various cognitive activities from age 6 to the present. All subjects underwent an extensive neuropsychological battery of tests and received PET scans. These scans were compared with those of 11 healthy young people in their 20s and 10 older patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Data analysis showed that individuals with higher lifetime levels of cognitive activities had lower levels of amyloid proteins in their brains. The association was not true for current levels of cognitive activity, leading to the conclusion that accruing a lifetime of activity was more effective than becoming cognitively active in later life. Study authors noted, however, that participating in cognitive activities later in life was also valuable.
“There is no downside to cognitive activity,” said principal investigator William J. Jagust, MD, professor at UC Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, the School of Public Health and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “It can only be beneficial, even if for reasons other than reducing amyloid in the brain, including social stimulation and empowerment. Actually, cognitive activity late in life may well turn out to be beneficial for reducing amyloid. We just haven’t found that connection yet.”
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