Use Your Brain to Reduce the Risk of Alzheimer's Disease

February 15, 2002

Last month researchers demonstrated that complex thinking may provide a boost to the immune system. A new study published in the February 13, 2002 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that mentally challenging activities may protect people from Alzheimer's disease. Scientists followed 740 members of the Catholic clergy (nuns, priests and brothers) for an average of 4.5 years. At the start of the study, none of these people had any signs of Alzheimer's disease. At each visit with the scientists, the participants were asked about the time they spent doing certain activities.

Activities Measured
  1. Watching television
  2. Listening to the radio
  3. Reading newspapers
  4. Reading magazines
  5. Reading books
  6. Playing games such as cards, checkers, crossword puzzles
  7. Going to museums
Each person received points for how often they engaged in each activity:
  • 5 points for every day or about every day
  • 4 points for several times a week
  • 3 points for several times a month
  • 2 points for several times a year
  • 1 point for one a year or less.

The scientists then calculated an average activity score. Participants were also given a series of 20 tests to measure their cognitive abilities.

Over the follow-up years, 111 of the original participants developed symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. Researchers found that more frequent cognitive activity (higher activity scores) REDUCED the chance that a person would develop symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. In fact, a 1-point increase in the activity score was associated with a 33% reduction in the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

The reason why increased cognitive activity reduces the risk for Alzheimer's disease is not known. It may be that challenging mental activities protect the brain from the damage of Alzheimer's disease or somehow strengthen existing neuronal connections. Additional research is necessary to discover the mechanisms that are responsible for these findings. Nevertheless, this research reinforces the old saying about the brain:

"Use It or Lose It!"


  1. Wilson, R.S., Mendes de Leon, C.F., Barnes, L.L., Schneider, J.A., Bienias, J.L., Evans, D.A., Bennett, D.A., Participation in Cognitively Stimulating Activities and Risk of Incident Alzheimer Disease, JAMA, 287:742-748, 2002.

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