Best Evidence Yet: Using Brain Keeps it Healthy

Contributed by: Dennis Fortier, President, Medical Care Corporation

Cognition, or thinking ability, is a complex concept and is difficult to measure.  Nonetheless, many studies have shown that intellectual activity seems to be correlated with some measure of"better cognition".  This makes intuitive sense and has given rise to many "use it or lose it" type slogans aimed at our aging population.

In a study published online today in the Archives of Neurology, researchers from Berkeley's Neuroscience Institute found that, seniors who pursued intellectual hobbies throughout their lives, accumulated less amyloid plaque in their brains later in life.  This is interesting in a couple of ways.

First, while cognition can be difficult to measure, accumulated amyloid plaque in the brain has become increasingly easier to measure with new agents that bind to amyloid and "light up" during a PET scan of the brain.  We can now get a fairly accurate read of amyloid load which is, by all accounts, much more tangible than our best measures of cognition.

An important caveat to this point is that, while we can accurately measure the amount of amyloid in the brain, we are still somewhat unclear on what that means.  For sure, amyloid accumulation is neurotoxic (harmful to brain cells), but such accumulation may be a reaction to some other disease process that would be even more damaging without the presence of amyloid plaques.  This is a topic of intense, ongoing study.

The second interesting take-away from this new research is that the subjets reported a lifetime of intellectual activity.  If this work is repeated in larger studies and deemed to be conclusive, it will not mean that playing bridge and studying music in retirement will keep amyloid plaques out of the brain.  It may be that an entire lifetime of brain exercise is the minimum threshold for a meaningful benefit.

In any case, it is very encouraging to see pathological evidence supporting the theory that brain exercise can have cognitive benefits during our elder years.  We will watch ongoing research in this area with great interest.

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