Mental Activity May Reduce Alzheimer?s Risk

ByABC News

Feb. 13, 2002 -- Could reading the newspaper every morning help ward off Alzheimer's disease? A new study finds that staying intellectually active during old age could decrease the likelihood of later developing the disease.

The study, published in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association, assessed the frequency of participation in intellectually stimulating activities, such as reading the newspaper, doing puzzles or visiting museums, in 724 participants with no signs of dementia to determine who was at greater risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

The subjects were nuns, priests and brothers aged 65 and older who participated in the Religious Orders Study and were followed for and average of four and a half years.

Subjects who reported the most frequent participation in intellectually stimulating activities were 47 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease or AD than those with the lowest participation.

ABCNEWS.com asked Alzheimer's disease experts to weigh in on the study and how it holds up to the familiar adage: Use it or lose it.

"Alzheimer's disease is the leading cause of dementia in older persons, and few modifiable risk factors have been identified. Participation in cognitively stimulating activities (e.g., reading) has long been thought to reduce the likelihood that one will get Alzheimer's disease. However, there is actually very little data on this topic.

Thus, our findings provide the most direct evidence to date that participation in cognitive activities reduces the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

Not only do persons with more frequent cognitive activity have a higher level of cognitive ability than those who are less cognitively active, but they also experience less loss of cognitive abilities over time, particularly in the kinds of skills involved in information processing (like speed of problem solving) which are thought to be important for thinking and memory as we age.

Further research is needed to understand how cognitive activity and related variables such as education protects one from getting Alzheimer's disease. However, our results do suggest that staying intellectually active in old age may help to reduce the likelihood that one will get Alzheimer's disease."- Robert S. Wilson, Ph.D., and David A. Bennett, M.D., director, Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center, Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center, Chicago, Ill. and authors of the current study.

"Several studies have suggested a negative correlation between staying mentally active and developing AD. This is probably one of the better ones, and it adds some further strength to the conclusion that there is such a correlation.

Correlation does not necessarily tell you anything about causality. A perfectly reasonable interpretation of this kind of data is that people who are at higher risk for AD are people who tend not to enjoy cognitive activity, but forcing more or less cognitive activity on them has no effect on their risk for AD.

An earlier report from the nun study suggested that those who wrote simpler prose in their late teens or early twenties were more at risk for AD in their eighties. Does that suggest that better training in essay writing in the early teens would prevent AD?

Some very good and useful work can start with correlations, but many correlations turn out to be of little use. There's a very strong correlation between foot size and reading ability among children. Would anyone suggest that either one caused the other? Or that we should stretch feet in order to improve reading ability?" - John Maggio, PhD, professor of phamacology and cell biology, University of Cincinnati Medical Center

"This kind of research is very difficult to do. How do you rate the degree of challenge or complexity of an activity? Photography is straightforward for some but very difficult for others. It is relatively easy to estimate how much time a person spends in leisure activities, but another issue to determine the cognitive challenge posed by those activities. How much more challenging is chess than checkers?

In the clinical setting we often encourage patients to "use it or lose it." This is probably more important for maintaining a better quality of life by avoiding depression and loss of interest rather than a direct benefit on the progression or development of Alzheimer's disease. Thus far, there have only been a handful of studies on this issue and curiously enough, they've all concluded that leading an "active lifestyle" is beneficial. None of them, to my knowledge, have analyzed data longer than 5 years. Therefore, the results are inconclusive ... but encouraging."- Yuval Zabar, M.D., Neurology Department, Lahey Clinic, Burlington, Mass.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events