Puzzles may 'hide' Alzheimer signs
Crossword puzzles and other mentally stimulating pursuits may hide rather than prevent the progress of Alzheimer's disease, research has shown.
Evidence suggests that keeping the brain active by reading, listening to the radio or doing puzzles, can delay the onset of dementia. But the reality could be that, even without symptoms, the brain is suffering progressive damage behind the scenes.
When Alzheimer's symptoms do appear the disease may be further advanced than expected. As a result, brain exercises can be associated with more rapidly progressing disease.
Dr Robert Wilson, from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, said: "Our results suggest that the benefit of delaying the initial signs of cognitive decline may come at the cost of more rapid dementia progression later on, but the question is: Why does this happen?" Mentally stimulating activities may help the brain "rewire" itself to circumvent the effects of dementia, said Dr Wilson.
However, once the disease is diagnosed, damage to the brain is likely to be greater than it would be in someone who was not mentally stimulated. Mental activity appeared to delay the start of Alzheimer's and then speed up its progress, while reducing the overall amount of time a person suffers from the disease.
The 12-year-study, published online in the journal Neurology, involved evaluating the mental activity of 1,157 people aged 65 and over, none of whom had dementia at the start. Mental decline was measured for each point on a "cognitive activity scale" which reflected how much brain stimulation participants had.
Over a period of six years, the rate of decline was reduced by 52% for each scale point in those without cognitive impairment. For individuals diagnosed Alzheimer's, the average rate of decline per year increased by 42% for each point on the cognitive activity scale.
Dr Susanne Sorensen, head of research at the Alzheimer's Society, said: "This robust study adds considerable weight to the argument that, at least in later life, it could and it may even delay the symptoms of dementia. However although the symptoms are delayed, there is no evidence changes in the brain associated with dementia have been reduced.
"That the brain is allowed to deteriorate to a larger degree before symptoms like memory loss become apparent could explain why the condition seems to progress more quickly after diagnosis. More research is now needed to establish why this happens and what role mental stimulation may have in keeping people functioning for longer."
Around 750,000 people in the UK suffer from some form of dementia and more than half have Alzheimer's disease.