Tuesday, June 27, 2006

More Evidence for Building Brain Reserves

My eye caught an Associated Press article today that supports previous research on Alzheimer's. In this study in part funded by the National Institute on Aging and led by Dr. David Bennett, an Alzheimer's researcher at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, over 2000 people have been followed clinically for years. Over that period of time, 134 people died. Part of the agreement to be in the study involved the agreement to have the brain autopsied after death. The results of the autopsies are reported in a peer-reviewed article and published in the June 2006 issue of Neurology, the American Academy of Neurology's journal. And they are very encouraging.

On the one hand, "senior moments," or occasional forgetfulness, may in fact be an early sign of Alzheimer's or dementia and not an inevitable consequence of aging. We so often think of forgetting the keys or someone's name as normal but in fact, it really may not be. On the other hand, and here's the good news: most of the participants who died were in their 80s and NONE of them had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's or mild cognitive impairments (which can lead to AD). They had all done well on memory evaluations. But 36% of them or 48 of the 134, had the classic plaques and tangles in the brain consistent with Alzheimer's. Why is this so positive?

It's positive news because once again, it reinforces the idea that "use or lose it" really does work for our brains as well as for our bodies. In fact, a new insight is emerging: if we don't exercise our brains, we may have brain cells that die or are more susceptible to disease. Dr. Carol Lippa, director of memory disorders at Drexel University College of Medicine, points this out in the article.

Regular mental challenge in the form of stimulating mind exercises plus feelings of social connectedness can build up a reserve, or a mental savings account, that we can use, as needed. The other positive addition to our knowledge in this study is that Dr. Bennett and his team also found that by engaging in brain exercises, which includes activities like interactive games, reading, and taking classes on new subjects, we are not only building reserves but may also be building compensation strategies to help us live normal and high-quality lives even though we may have some impairment. So support is building for the idea that certain games, for example, that target specific cognitive skills may help us stretch our brains but may also help us learn particular strategies for remembering or using visual-spatial skills as a compensatory tactic.

Remember, there were no clinical signs of a problem here, except mild episodic memory loss (remembering a story that had been recently read to them). These were high-functioning people who were able to carry on conversations, complete normal tasks like reading and playing games and socializing with friends, even though the researchers later found out that they had already experienced Alzheimer's.

In the article, Dallas Anderson, an Alzheimer's scientist at the National Institute on Aging, called the studies results "very plausible and helpful." I would add, extremely hopeful and positive, too. We have so many reasons to keep on keeping on, especially when it comes to using our brains.

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