Use it or lose it - use is key to a healthy brain
Associated Press Medical Writer
Jun. 20, 2005
By LAURAN NEERGAARD
WASHINGTON - Exercise your brain. Nourish it well. And the earlier you start,
That's the best advice doctors can yet offer to ward off Alzheimer's disease.
There's no guarantee. But more and more research shows that some fairly simple
steps can truly lower your risk of the deadly dementia. Also, if Alzheimer's
strikes anyway, people who have followed this advice tend to do better - their
brains withstand the attack longer before symptoms become obvious.
The goal: build up what's called a "cognitive reserve."
"Cognitive reserve is not something you're born with," Dr. Yaakov Stern of
Columbia University told a meeting of Alzheimer's researchers Monday. "It's
something that changes, and can be modified over time."
In fact, there's now enough research backing this theory that the Alzheimer's
Association is offering free classes around the country to teach people - of any
age, but especially baby boomers - just how to do it. They call it "maintain
"There is tremendous interest in making sure that by the time you're 80,
your brain is there with you," explains California psychologist Elizabeth
Edgerly, who leads the program. A healthy brain weighs about 2 pounds, roughly
the size of a cauliflower. Networks of blood vessels keep oxygen flowing to 100
billion brain cells.
Branch-like tentacles extend from the ends of those cells, the brain's
own specialized wiring to communicate. Under a microscope, they look like bushy
hairs. A healthy brain can continue to grow new neurons and rewire and adapt
itself throughout old age - and you want your brain to be as bushy as
That growth starts in childhood, when parents read to tots, and depends heavily
on getting lots of education. The less educated have double the risk of getting
Alzheimer's decades later than people with a college education. Likewise, people
who are less educated and have a not-so-challenging job have three to four times
the risk of getting Alzheimer's, Stern says.
If you're already 40, don't despair. What's the advice?
-Your brain is like a muscle - use it or lose it. Brain scans show that when
people use their brains in unusual ways, more blood flows into different neural
regions and new connections form. Do a new type of puzzle, learn to play chess,
take a foreign language class or solve a vexing problem at work. Try to
challenge your brain daily, Edgerly advises.
-A healthy brain isn't just an intellectual one. Social stimulation is crucial,
too. Don't sit in front of the television. People who are part of a group,
whether it's a church or a book club, age healthier. Declining social
interaction predicts declining cognitive function, new government research
-So do stress and anxiety. People who have what's called chronic distress -
extreme worriers - are twice as likely to develop some form of dementia, reports
Dr. Robert Wilson of Rush University Medical Center. Why? Autopsies show these
people actually had fewer bush-like tentacles, or dendrites, linking their brain
cells, meaning their brains were more vulnerable when disease struck.
It's not clear if someone can reverse a lifetime of worry and anxiety, but
animal studies suggest exercise eases the effects of this kind of stress.
-Getting physical is crucial also. Bad memory is linked to heart disease and
diabetes, because clogged arteries slow blood flow in the brain. Elderly people
who were less mentally and physically active in middle age are about three times
as likely to get Alzheimer's as they gray. A study from Sweden found the obese
are twice as likely to get Alzheimer's.
Go for the triple-whammy of something mentally, physically and socially
stimulating all at once: Coach your child's ball team. Take a dance class.
Strategize a round of golf.
-And don't forget diet. The same foods that are heart-healthy are brain-healthy,
so avoid artery-clogging saturated fat and try for omega-3 fatty acids, found in
fish and nuts.
Eat dark-skinned fruits and vegetables, which are particularly high in
brain-healthy vitamins E and C. Harvard researchers found eating dark green
leafy vegetables like spinach improves cognitive function. Also, B vitamins and
folic acid, found in cereals, breads and fruits like strawberries, are important
for brain health.