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An active brain may help keep Alzheimer's at bay

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - The results of a new study support a number of previous studies that have shown that staying mentally active reduces the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and the mild impairments that precede the condition.

As part of the Rush Memory and Aging Project in Chicago, more than 700 elderly subjects who were an average of 80 years old underwent yearly testing to detect any mental declines. The subjects were tested for up to 5 years and provided information on any current and past problems with their memory or thought processes.

They were also asked about their activities, such as visiting a library or museum; reading newspapers, books or magazines; attending a concert, play or musical; and writing a letter,” Robert S. Wilson told Reuters Health.

Ninety of the study subjects developed Alzheimer’s disease. In the current issue of the medical journal Neurology, Wilson of Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, and colleagues report that the frequent participation in activities that involve mental processes was associated a 50-percent reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s disease.

A mentally inactive person in old-age was 2.6-times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than one who was mentally active, the team found.

This relationship remained after controlling for past mental issues, lifespan socioeconomic status, current social and physical activity, and also low mental function at the beginning of the trial, investigators report. Frequent mental activities also protected against mild impairments.

“Our results suggest that regardless of how mentally active people have been prior to old age, higher level of mental activity in old age reduces the risk of developing an Alzheimer’s disease-like dementia and...impairment,” Wilson said.

Brain autopsy performed in 102 subjects who died during the study failed to show a correlation between level of mental activity and neuropathology findings.

It is likely, Wilson said, that mental inactivity is “truly a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and not simply an early consequence of the disease” -- because mental activity was not related to Alzheimer’s disease pathology “and people with early Alzheimer’s disease symptoms did not show accelerated decline in mental activity.”

The findings of this study underscore the importance of being mentally active in old age, the clinicians conclude.

SOURCE: Neurology 27, 2007.