Each year, leading experts on Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders meet at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, which is the world’s largest gathering of leading researchers, who present the latest information on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of memory and cognitive disorders.
This information is of interest to anyone concerned about brain health—and that surely includes Alzheimer’s family caregivers, who often express concerns about their own risk. This year, several new studies shed light on risk reduction strategies:
Mentally Stimulating Activities Promote Brain Health
A number of previous studies have suggested that puzzles, games, and other activities that make our brains work a little harder could also protect our memory and thinking. Researchers from the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute and the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center presented the results of a study that adds to this understanding.
The scientists studied a group of people at higher risk of Alzheimer’s due to a family history of the disease and/or the APOe4 gene, which is associated with higher risk. They found that the people who often play games, read books, or go to museums had greater brain volume in several important regions. According to researcher Stephanie Schultz, “Our findings suggest that for some individuals, engagement in cognitively stimulating activities, especially involving games such as puzzles and cards, might be a useful approach for preserving brain structures and cognitive functions that are vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease.”
Moderate Exercise and Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)
The Alzheimer’s Association says that of all the lifestyle choices we can make, exercise is the best-documented way to promote brain health. At the Conference, Mayo Clinic researchers reported the results of a study that specifically looked at the relationship between mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and exercise. Mild cognitive impairment is a condition that causes slight changes in memory and thinking. It may be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease, but not everyone with MCI will develop Alzheimer’s. The research team, led by Dr. Yonas Geda, reported that physical exercise in midlife and later life was associated with a reduced risk of MCI. They also found that in people who already have MCI, those with a history of moderate exercising during the ages of 50 – 65 had a “significantly decreased” risk of progressing to dementia. Dr. Geda said, “In our studies, we found that physical exercise at various levels, especially in mid-life, is beneficial for cognitive function. These are intriguing results, but they are not yet conclusive. More research is needed to determine the extent and nature of physical activity in protecting against MCI and dementia.”
Brain-Healthy Lifestyle Choices Work Together
There are some risk factors that we can’t do anything about—but many lifestyle choices are under our control. A team of researchers from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden and the National Institute for Health and Welfare in Finland noted that individual studies have looked at the protective effect of individual modifiable risk factors, such as diet, exercise, socialization, social activities and management of heart disease. The team decided to look at the collective effect of all those factors. They studied a group of people age 60 to 77, and reported that those who were encouraged to follow a full set of brain-healthy lifestyle choices performed better on cognitive tests two years later. At the Conference, study author Dr. Miia Kivipelto said, “This is the first randomized control trial showing that it is possible to prevent cognitive decline using a multi-domain intervention among older at-risk individuals.” Kivipelto also noted that the study participants found the experience positive, and only 11 percent dropped out of the study during the two-year period.
For family caregivers whose loved ones have Alzheimer’s or a related dementia, these studies are yet another reminder about how important it is to take care of your own health! Take advantage of support resources in your community that can help you make time for the exercise, mental stimulation, regular healthcare, healthy eating, and other activities that lower your own risk.
Source: Horizon House in association with IlluminAge, reporting on news releases from the Alzheimer’s Association. Read more about the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference here.