Alzheimer’s disease—the most common type of dementia—affects roughly one in nine people age 65 and older in the U.S., the Alzheimer’s Association reports. And many people experience mild cognitive impairment (MCI) as they age, which can be “a midway point between normal cognitive aging and dementia,” Brenna Renn, PhD and assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, tells Best Life.
Now, a study from Columbia University and Duke University published in the Oct. 2022 edition of the NEJM Evidence journal confirms that one popular activity in particular could keep our brains sharp as we age. Read on to find out what it is, and how researchers say it helps.
Experts say the brains of people living with dementia atrophy at a higher and faster rate than usual. “Brain shrinkage associated with Alzheimer’s disease is thought to be caused by the accumulated damage of plaques caused by a type of protein,” explains Renn. “However, it is not clear why these proteins malfunction and accumulate—and whether these are a cause or a consequence of Alzeheimer’s disease.”
Michael Roizen, MD, Chief Wellness Officer Emeritus at the Cleveland Clinic, author of The Great Age Reboot, and founder of The Great Age Reboot adds, “Stress is a leading cause of brain shrinkage in normal humans, but lack of connections and lack of use are major factors.”
Sandi Petersen, DNP and senior VP of health and wellness at Pegasus Senior Living, says challenging your brain stimulates connections between nerve cells and might help generate new cells and protect against cell loss.
“Any mentally stimulating activity should help to build up your brain,” she notes. “Read, learn a new language, find opportunities for ‘brain exercises,’ such as word puzzles or math problems. Experiment with things that require manual dexterity as well as mental effort, such as drawing, painting, and other crafts.”
For this recent study, researchers split 107 participants with MCI into two groups: one trained in web-based crossword puzzles, and one trained in cognitive video games. After 78 weeks, the crossword puzzle group showed greater cognitive improvement and less brain shrinkage.
“The findings [were] the opposite to what the authors really expected to find,” says Claire Sexton, DPhil and senior director of Scientific Programs and Outreach at the Alzheimer’s Association. She explained that researchers expected to see more impressive results from the specially designed video games, as opposed to the program modeled on regular crossword puzzles. “There’s been a lot of research in the field,” she adds, noting that “we really need further trials like this one, to really better examine cause and effect.”
Some diseases are fast-acting and seem to appear out of nowhere, but dementia isn’t one of them. As Petersen explains, “Progressive neurocognitive disorders, like Alzheimer’s, may start when an individual is in their 30’s and 40’s… [but] often, we do not notice the effects until years later, when the individual gets lost in familiar places, forgets important appointments, makes unwise decisions about finances, or is noted to have poor safety awareness.”
“We know that dementia does not just develop overnight,” says Sexton. “From studies looking into the brain, we can see changes in the brain… key hallmarks, such as levels of amyloid and tau in the brain, levels of amyloid starting to build up 10, 20 years in advance of somebody getting a diagnosis.”
These changes in the brain, she explains, can begin to have effects on cognition years before an official dementia diagnosis. Forgetting your keys or why you walked into a room is not necessarily cause for alarm, she says. Rather, look out for changes in memory and thinking behavior, things which “[interfere] with people’s daily activities.”
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Stimulating your brain with crossword puzzles and other mental challenges is a great start, but lots of other things can help keep your brain sharp as you age, as well.
Petersen recommends eating a healthy diet, keeping your blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol under control, and avoiding tobacco and excessive alcohol consumption. She says, “Nutrition is one of the keys to a healthy brain. Individuals who eat a Mediterranean style diet consisting of fish, nuts, unsaturated oils (olive oil), fruits, vegetables, and plant sources of proteins have been shown by some research to be less likely to develop cognitive impairment and dementia.”
And Renn adds that, “Anything we do to keep our bodies healthy will also help protect our brain—and thus, cognitive—health, without risks or side effects.”
“Pay attention to your mental health and sleep hygiene,” Petersen advises. “Individuals who are anxious, depressed, or sleep poorly tend to score poorly on cognitive function tests. While there isn’t a correlation between these factors and cognitive decline, healthy aging is supported by good sleep and a positive outlook.” And “stay social,” she continues. “Strong friendships and frequent interaction with others have been associated with lower risk of cognitive decline.”