Roughly five and a half million American adults suffer from Alzheimer’s disease—one of the most awful age-related conditions of our time. With the population of seniors growing, the number of afflicted is expected to triple by the year 2050.
Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the US. No cure and very few treatments exist. The ones that do aren’t very effective, and they do nothing to halt the progression of the disease.
For that reason, your best option is to focus on prevention. I’ve discussed in the past that one of the most important things you can do to lower your risk is to reduce inflammation.
Research has found that chronic inflammation causes sustained damage to the brain that can accelerate the progression of Alzheimer’s. Inflammation also plays a role in the formation of plaques and tangles—two proteins in the brain that are hallmark signs of Alzheimer’s. Some of the supplements that have been studied for their anti-inflammatory effects in the brain are curcumin (500 mg two to three times per day), omega-3 fatty acids (1,000-2,000 mg daily), and phosphatidylserine (300 mg per day).
In addition, exercise is extremely important for brain health.
Numerous studies have demonstrated that healthy people who are physically active are less likely to experience a decline in their mental function. A 2009 meta-analysis concluded that increased physical activity reduced the risk of developing Alzheimer’s by 45 percent.1
Exercising for 30 to 60 minutes a day, several times a week, appears to slow the brain’s reduction in nerve-to-nerve connections—a process that naturally occurs with aging. Physical activity also helps the brain by keeping your blood flowing and increasing certain chemicals that protect the brain from damage.
But it’s not just physical activity that benefits the brain…
“Exercising” and challenging the brain itself can have profound effects on brain health too. Exciting new research released this past summer shows just how important “brain games” can be in preventing cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s.
Brain games were first explored in a 10-year study known as Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE). Results of this particular study were released in 2014. In it, researchers examined the effects of different training programs on 2,785 healthy adults with an average of 82.
The participants were divided into three training groups—memory, reasoning, or speed of processing. (The speed of processing training involved computer programs where individuals identified objects on the screen quickly. The program got progressively harder with each turn. The memory and reasoning training entailed classroom instruction.) Participants received 10 one-hour sessions over five weeks, then four “booster” sessions 11 and 35 months later.
Results showed that, after 10 years, individuals in the reasoning and speed-of-processing groups, but not the memory training group, experienced improved cognitive abilities.2
Same Study, New Analysis
The results of the ACTIVE study were modest, but when reexamined and reanalyzed earlier this year by a University of South Florida researcher, the speed of processing program showed a lot more promise.
In the new analysis, a researcher looked at the study from a new angle—how long it took for participants to develop dementia over the 10-year period. She found that those in the computerized speed of processing group were 33 percent less likely to develop dementia over 10 years. And those who completed 11 or more sessions showed a 48 percent reduced risk.3
What is it about this computerized program that enhances brain health so much? It is believed that such programs enhance brain plasticity. In short, the brain has the ability to change throughout life, and keeping it active and challenged leads to the reorganization of neural pathways and the formation of new connections between brain cells.
The program used in this study is found at BrainHQ.com. You need a subscription to access it, but at $14/month (or $96/year), it may be worth your while—especially if you’re over 50, you have a family history of Alzheimer’s, or you simply want to exercise your most important muscle.
If you don’t want to commit to this particular program, then challenge your brain in other ways. Learn a new language; do crossword puzzles, word finds, or Sudoku; take up a new skill like knitting or even dancing has been shown to increase brain plasticity. Any time you try something you have never done before, you form new neural pathways that help keep your brain young and active.
The moral is this: There is no better time than today to start exercising your brain and preventing cognitive decline.
- Hamer M and Chida Y. Psychol Med. 2009 Jan;39(1):3-11.
- Rebok GW, et al. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2014 Jan;62(1):16-24.
- University of South Florida press release. Computerized brain training designed to improve visual attention reduces dementia risk