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Crossword Puzzles May Not Prevent Alzheimer’s but Could Delay Mental Decline


“Use it or Lose it” is often used in relation to brain health – stay mentally active and you may prevent memory loss and dementia. Researchers do not have a clear picture on why this seems to work for some people, but assert that it is probably multifactorial. Mental activities such as crossword puzzles on their own may not be the key to preventing Alzheimer’s, says a family medicine professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Mental Activities May Help the Brain Function Longer

Alzheimer’s disease affects about 5.3 million Americans, mostly striking older adults after age 65 but occasionally occurring in people as young as 30 and 40. Abnormal brain structures including beta-amyloid plaques and twisted protein fragments called tau occur, building up first in the regions of the brain responsible for memory. Although the Alzheimer’s patient usually deteriorates over the course of several years, damage to the brain often begins much earlier.

Dr. Philip Stone MD MPH cites a conclusion put forth by an independent panel of the National Institutes of Health when he says “I’d be surprised if (mental activities) actually makes a difference” in the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. The NIH panel found that there is “no evidence of even moderate scientific quality” that any intervention reduces the risk of the devastating memory-robbing disease.

Read: Tips for Keeping the Brain Fit In Old Age

Researchers have previously theorized that social engagement or intellectual stimulation may help in four ways:

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• They may protect the brain in some way, perhaps by establishing “cognitive reserve” – the brain’s ability to operate effectively even when some function is disrupted or the amount of damage that the brain can sustain before changes in cognition are evident.
• These activities may help the brain become more adaptable and flexible in some areas of mental function so that it can compensate for declines in other areas.
• People who engage in these activities may have other lifestyle factors that protect them against developing AD.
• Less engagement with other people or in intellectually stimulating activities could be the result of very early effects of the disease rather than its cause.

A separate study, conducted at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, say that likely mental activities slow cognitive decline by enhancing the brain’s ability to function normally, even if brain lesions exist. But the activities will not actually protect against the development of Alzheimer’s.

Read: Ten Surprising Facts About Using Brain Training to Fight Dementia

Dr. Robert Wilson PhD studied the mental activities of 1,157 participants aged 65 and older who did not have dementia at the start of the 12-year study. He found that while the rate of cognitive decline was reduced by 52% for each point scored on a cognitive activity scale (meaning that the more often a patient performed mentally-stimulating activities, the more points the received), people who ultimately developed Alzheimer’s had a rapid mental decline once dementia symptoms appeared.

While crossword puzzles and other brain activities may not actually prevent Alzheimer’s he does note a positive – they “reduce the overall amount of time that a person may suffer from dementia.”

UNC Healthcare
Neurology, September 1, 2010