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Ways to Hold Off Dementia

- Monday, January 09, 2012

Recently, researchers looking into cognitive decline and dementia have made encouraging findings. Although it was believed that the adult brain could not develop new neurons (or brain cells), scientists have learned in the past decade or so that the human brain is pliable and adaptive. The brain can actually add new neurons even late in life and continually form new connections among existing neurons -- a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity.

This means that while an aging brain may have signs of damage, initially it can often compensate for them. And engaging in mentally stimulating activities like reading, taking a class or playing board games is one way to bolster this process.

This compensation process depends on your "cognitive reserve," the extra, perhaps unused, amount of cognitive ability that can make up for the loss of brain functioning when your brain shows signs of dementia due to the death of cells and their replacement by beta-amyloid plaques. Genetics, early childhood stimulation and education level can influence cognitive reserve but are essentially immutable once you're an adult.
Fortunately, studies have found that you can also increase your cognitive reserve and delay the onset of dementia through a variety of intellectually stimulating leisure activities in middle and later life.

A study in the journal Neurology found that among 101 people who eventually developed dementia, those who frequently participated in one or more activities, such as reading, writing, doing crossword puzzles, playing card or board games, having group discussions or playing music experienced memory decline more than one year later than those who participated in these activities less often. These pursuits built cognitive reserve and delayed dementia as much as a higher education level did.

It's worth noting that researchers have discovered that watching television is a passive activity that doesn't really stimulate the mind at all; on the contrary, watching television is associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline. One study found that TV watchers were 10% more likely than non-watchers to experience cognitive impairments over a five-year period. A possible explanation: Time spent in front of the TV means less time for the mental, social and physical activities that can help delay dementia.

Original article – Johns Hopkins Health Alert