Reducing the risk of Alzheimer's

January 23, 2012 7:49:38 PM PST
A new study from UC Berkeley has uncovered physical evidence that people who challenge themselves intellectually could be decreasing their risk of developing Alzheimer's Disease, and the clues are visible in their brains.

Just finishing a crossword puzzle can be difficult once Alzheimer's Disease has set in. But researchers have long suspected that doing similar activities throughout your life-time could help keep the disease at bay. Now a team at UC Berkeley has taken that notion of use it or lose it a step further by studying deposits of amyloid plaque in the brain, which are believed to be linked with Alzheimer's.

"What this study showed is that it's not just a matter of this protecting you from the effects of the amyloid, for example," said Dr. William Jagust, MD, of UC Berkeley. "We think that this kind of cognitive activity may actually result in less amyloid being deposited."

Jagust and his team traced the behavioral history of healthy elderly adults. Specifically how much intellectual challenge they'd had over the decades -- everything from regular reading, to doing crossword puzzles. After obtaining that information, they began probing their brains with PET scans.

"And what we found is that the more cognitively active people were, the less of this amyloid they had in the brain," said Jagust.

"We do know from empiric evidence that a lot of people with memory disorders, tend not to do cognitively challenging things during their lifetimes," said Dr. Jerome Goldstein, MD, with the San Fancisco Clinical Research Center.

Goldstein says that while the precise cause of memory loss is still unclear, delaying the onset of Alzheimer's can be critical because of the unique characteristics of the disease.

"One of them is that the later in life it begins, the slower the progression of it," said Goldstein. "And we haven't really answered that question, you know, to anyone's true satisfaction as to why people who develop Alzheimer's Disease earlier in life tend to have a more rapid course."

The Berkeley study did not confirm whether increasing intellectual activity later in life would have a similar effect in slowing the accumulation of amyloid. Researchers say they are now planning a follow up study using functional MRI trying to confirm the link between neural activity and the development of amyloid plaque in the brain.

For people at risk of Alzheimer's, doctors recommend walking an hour a day, engaging in intellectual challenges like reading, and taking specific vitamins.

Written and produced by Tim Didion.