TRENTON, N.J. – While there's nothing you can do or take to ensure you won't get Alzheimer's disease, experts say there are some strategies that might help keep your brain sharp. And you don't need to dole out a lot of money to do it.
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"Does one have to spend their life savings on computer games? I don't think so," said Dr. Yonas Geda, a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, who's looked at some alternatives.
Research on the issue isn't conclusive, but there are hints that getting more exercise and stimulating your mind with games, computer use and other activities can help keep the brain nimble. It's also possible reducing high blood pressure will lower chances of dementia by improving blood flow to the brain and preventing a stroke or heart attack. At worst, those steps should improve your mood and overall health.
Those are the key findings of a June report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
Dr. Kenneth Langa, a dementia expert at the University of Michigan who worked on the report, said seniors need to stay fit and challenge their mind with new ideas and complex activities such as learning to play a musical instrument and going out with friends.
"I've been recommending these kinds of things to my patients for several years. They should walk, talk and read," Langa said.
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He helps run a National Institute of Aging study that's been following 20,000 American adults aged 51 and older since 1992. It's found the rate of newly diagnosed dementia cases has declined by more than 25 percent over that period. Langa credits the drop to higher levels of education, which produces more connections among brain cells, but says other factors are involved.
More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's, the most common form of dementia. Langa said the lifetime risk of developing Alzheimer's is about 15 percent, meaning 15 of every 100 people end up with it.
The Alzheimer's Association has done its own evidence review and lists tips on how to delay mental decline and protect your brain.
"Probably the worst thing you can do is become a couch potato and sit around the house all day," said Keith N. Fargo, director of scientific programs and outreach for the patient advocacy group.
A January report from an ongoing Mayo Clinic Study of Aging found that among several types of mental stimulation reviewed, regular computer use such as web surfing and sending email most sharply reduced the rate of "mild cognitive impairment." That's an intermediate stage between normal brain slowing and dementia. People with this impairment are about 10 times more likely than others to develop dementia, said Geda.
He and colleagues tested nearly 2,000 people aged 70 and older with healthy brains for about four years. Those who participated in mentally stimulating activities at least once or twice a week were less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment, the researchers found.
They reported regular computer use cut the risk 30 percent, reducing the lifetime risk to about 10 percent. Other activities that also seemed to help:
—Crafts such as sewing, knitting and pottery
—Social activities like going to theaters
—Playing card or board games, doing crosswords or other puzzles
A Finnish study that looked at using multiple strategies found that the group pushed to exercise, eat better and do brain training for two years fared 25 percent better at maintaining brain function than a group that got standard health advice.
"These things cost nothing and clearly point in the direction of decreased risk," said Geda, who started the Mayo study partly because he'd seen so many ads hawking expensive brain-training games and wanted to see how free alternatives fared.
Last year, the Federal Trade Commission announced a $2 million settlement with the maker of Lumosity for deceptive ads suggesting that playing its games a few times weekly could boost performance at work and delay dementia.
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