Can Brain Games and Complex Jobs Help Prevent Alzheimer's?

, Senior Vice President of Memory Care & Program Services  |  August 8, 2016
Can Brain Games and Complex Jobs Help Prevent Alzheimer's?
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The Alzheimer’s Association recently held its annual International Conference (AAIC), known as the world’s largest forum for the dementia research community. Experts, researchers and clinicians from more than 70 countries gathered to present and discuss the latest Alzheimer’s research.

Results from three particular studies stand out as significant, with findings that may impact how we ought to modify our own behavior and help possibly keep our brains healthier for longer.

Study #1: Brain Games Might Cut the Risk of Developing Alzheimer's in Half

This study looked at 3,000 seniors over a 10-year period and concluded that 11-14 hours of computerized speed training reduced the risk of developing dementia by 48 percent. Conducted by the government-funded ACTIVE Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly), the study examined three groups: one trained in reasoning, another for memory improvement and a third in speed-of- processing training.

In speed-of-processing training, a computer program challenges users to quickly identify images in the center of their field of vision and match them with images on the periphery. This study, if held up during peer review, has immense significance, since just two years ago scientists largely rejected evidence that "brain games" have any effect on cognitive function.

What It Means for You:

To fully understand these results, it is important to examine the term "speed of processing." As we get older, our brains tend to process more slowly. For example, it may take me longer to solve a math problem today than it did 10 years ago. But if we continue to build up neural pathways in our brains, our speed of processing gets stronger, and we can make memories and hold onto them for longer, even as we age.

This study could be a really positive step in the right direction. With more conclusive results and a thorough peer review, we may be looking at speed-of-processing training as a way to help build our neural pathways. I'm excited at the prospect of doctors potentially prescribing such brain games as part of a slate of non-pharmacological treatments for memory loss.

Computerized brain games could be an easy addition to your lifestyle. However, research thus far still shows that some of the best ways to help reduce the risk of Alzheimer's is by maintaining other brain-healthy activities, including exercising regularly, having a healthy diet, getting enough sleep and continuing to challenge our brains.

Study #2: Personality and Behavior Changes May Be First Signs of Dementia

Mild Behavioral Impairment (MBI) may be the first sign of Alzheimer's, according to researchers from Canada. This is considered substantial because it suggests for the first time that the early signs of dementia may not be exclusively memory-related, and instead may be neuropsychiatric. The scientists unveiled a 34-question checklist of symptoms that, if sustained over the course of at least six months, could be important enough to alert families and doctors. The checklist includes:

  1. Decreased motivation, apathy and lack of interest in things a person once enjoyed
  2. Depression, anxiety and irritability
  3. Lack of empathy
  4. Loss of impulse control, agitation and obsessiveness
  5. Perception problems (delusions or hallucinations)

What It Means for You:

Consider these findings as a reminder that we should always try to be in tune to behavior changes, both in ourselves or our loved ones. The changes in mood or behavior may or may not be linked to frustrations due to early memory loss, but if any major change is sustained over time, it's important to seek medical attention. Depression, another disease that is very common in older adults, manifests in behavioral changes and requires professional medical assessment and treatment. Pay attention to any abrupt or unusual changes and talk to your doctor about what they could mean.

Study #3: Brain-Challenging Jobs and Social Ties May Protect Against Alzheimer's

People who have jobs involving complex thinking, particularly those that include high levels of human interaction, may have greater protection from diseases such as Alzheimer's, according to the researchers from the University of Wisconsin's Alzheimer's Disease Research Center.

The study found jobs that involve mentoring, such as social workers, physicians, psychologists, pastors and school counselors, were the most socially complex. Another study examined how a mentally stimulating lifestyle can counteract the negative effects of a "Western" diet (identified by red and processed meats, white bread, potatoes, pre-packaged foods and sweets). The results of the study found that people who eat this type of diet experienced less cognitive decline if they engaged in complex work with high levels of social interaction.

What It Means for You:

Many people may find this study confusing, perhaps thinking of the brilliant teacher or doctor that they know who inevitably developed Alzheimer's or dementia. Throughout my years working in memory care settings, I have come to know many residents, such as a brilliant physicians and scientists who experienced memory loss despite their extraordinarily challenging careers. All brains age differently, and some diseases are unavoidable, especially if there's a genetic predisposition. However, the findings of this study should serve as encouragement for all of us to continue to exercise our brains and remain intellectually active. It is vital that we proactively focus on building our cognitive reserve, and something we should try to do every single day.

So, what is a "cognitive reserve" and how do we build it? One way to think about the cognitive reserve is to liken your brain to a bank account where you make regular deposits for a rainy day. We should treat the neural pathways in our brain the same way. If you have a job stocking shelves at a grocery store, or you work at home alone on your computer all day, challenge yourself to expand your mind and learn something new, which will create new neural pathways and in turn build your cognitive reserve. We aren't all trained to be lawyers or psychologists, but we are all capable of challenging our brains with simple purposeful activities to keep it healthy and strong. Get creative with it! A few easy brain-strengthening activities include:

Bottom Line:

Keep learning and challenging your brain. I encourage people to channel their inner 3-year-old by asking questions constantly and looking at everything as an opportunity to learn something new. If the activities above seem too daunting, start smaller! Take 10 minutes a day to be quiet and meditate; focus on opening up your mind and relaxing. It’s important to try to fill your cognitive reserve a little each day -- by making your brain stronger, you are helping to protect it for the future.

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