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Intellectual Activities can Prevent the Need for Memory Care as we Age

- Monday, January 30, 2012

Reading, playing a variety of games, and doing other intellectual pursuits on a daily basis over the course of a lifetime could help prevent the formation of amyloid plaques that cause Alzheimer’s disease. But for the most benefit we may need to get our brains engaged early in life - years or decades before we need memory care.

In the first study of its kind, researchers examined the amount of beta amyloid deposits in the brains of healthy seniors with no signs of dementia and found that those who reported doing daily brainy activities from the age of 6 onward had very low levels of amyloid plaque - on par with of an average person in their early 20s. Those who do not engage in intellectual activities had higher plaque levels, according to the study.

This could mean that by the time people need memory care, it may be too late to prevent further progression of Alzheimer’s.

“It was fascinating to see that those who do not have high levels of cognitive activity had high levels of these plaques,’’ said study leader Susan Landau, a research scientist at the University of California-Berkeley’s Neuroscience Institute. “We assume many of the healthy people with amyloid plaques will go on to develop Alzheimer’s later on, though the imaging technology hasn’t been around long enough to confirm this.’’

Previous research indicates that the plaque forms in areas of the brain associated with default behaviors that we do automatically, such as brushing our teeth or driving a car while we’re daydreaming.

“I think it’s a little too early to say that there is a cause and effect relationship, but the finding is intriguing,’’ Sperling said, and “I definitely think there’s enough data now to encourage’’ people to make lifestyle changes - the earlier, the better.

Researchers discovered some time ago that the kinds of learning activities most beneficial for reducing the need of memory care as we age combines physical activity, social networking, and learning a new skill.

It is also clear that there’s a genetic component involved in the need for memory care as we age. Sperling said,  “But [genes] could play a much stronger role in those who develop Alzheimer’s before age 65’’ compared with those who develop it a decade or two later.

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