More vendors and senior living communities are pitching brain fitness programs ranging from crossword puzzles to interactive computer systems as ways to ward off Alzheimer’s disease. A new study by Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center shows that mentally stimulating activities such as crossword puzzles, reading and listening to the radio may, at first, slow the decline of thinking skills but speed up dementia later in old age. Researchers state that mentally stimulating activities may somehow enhance the brain’s ability to function relatively normally despite the buildup of lesions in the brain associated with dementia. However, once they are diagnosed with dementia, people who have a more mentally active lifestyle are likely to have more brain changes related to dementia compared to those without a lot of mental activity. As a result, those with more mentally active lifestyles may experience a faster rate of decline once dementia begins.
“Our results suggest that the benefit of delaying the initial signs of cognitive decline may come at the cost of more rapid dementia progression later on, but the question is why does this happen?” said study author Robert S. Wilson, PhD, neuropsychologist, Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center, Rush University Medical Center.
Researchers evaluated the mental activities of 1,157 people age 65 or older who did not have dementia at the start of the nearly 12-year study and responded to questions about their activities for mental stimulation including listening to the radio, watching television, reading, playing games and going to a museum. Each activity represented a point on the study’s cognitive activity scale. During the next six years, the study found that the rate of cognitive decline in people without cognitive impairment was reduced by 52 percent for each point on the cognitive activity scale. For people with Alzheimer’s disease, the average rate of decline per year increased by 42 percent for each point on the cognitive activity scale
The study is published in the September 1 online issue of the journal Neurology.