Increasing Your Brain Fitness to Counteract Alzheimer's Disease

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Crossword puzzleMADISON – We're living longer. That's the good news, said Asenath La Rue, PhD, a senior scientist at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health's Wisconsin Alzheimer's Institute.

But the good news of our longevity is countered by a measure of bad news Dr. La Rue encounters in her Alzheimer's research. The enjoyment of those extra years is and will continue to be threatened by the debilitating effects of the disease.

"Unless there's a breakthrough in how we treat or manage Alzheimer's disease, many of us will suffer from that disease in our old age," Dr. La Rue told physicians, fellow researchers and other health care professionals at the recent Alzheimer's Disease Annual Update conference at Madison's Concourse Hotel. "I look at dementia as the global warming of the health care system. Very few people deny it's happening and the time to act is now."

An estimated 5.2 million Americans currently suffer from the memory and language problems Alzheimer’s causes, and that number could triple by 2050.

In response, the health care community is investing a lot of time and money in looking for the cure that hasn't yet been discovered. More promising, however, is the attention being paid to delaying the onset of Alzheimer's symptoms.

Alzheimer's disease is progressive. It's not like a broken leg, an unanticipated condition that can only be addressed after the fact. Alzheimer's reveals itself gradually, and that leads to logical questions about prevention.

"It's not a condition that comes on suddenly at old age," Dr. La Rue said. "So are there things we can do to delay the onset of clinically significant symptoms?"

The search for answers to that question has spawned what is commonly referred to as the "Brain Fitness" movement. In reference to Alzheimer's disease, "brain fitness" means maintaining strong attention, memory and language skills late in life, and the movement is investigating if specific activities are of any benefit.

"We're Americans. We're optimistic," Dr. La Rue said. "And overwhelmingly we think brain health can be improved."

The data suggest this optimism has some basis in fact. Research from the past five years intimates older adults benefit cognitively from both physical and mental exercise. The problem right now is developing specific recommendations.

"We don't have a prescription we can write for how much and what types of exercise," Dr. La Rue said. "Every study looks at and defines activity in its own way. There is no metric where we can say, 'Sixty minutes of reading is equivalent to 20 minutes of playing sudoku.' And we cannot say any individual activity reduces dementia risk."

But research momentum is building for an approach similar to that prescribed for cardiovascular health – a sensible diet and regular exercise – combined with mind testers like reading, crossword puzzles and games.

Dr. La Rue's own experience seems to confirm that course. She is the principal investigator for Take Charge, a program that develops individualized activity care plans for people 60 years and older. Take Charge encourages cognitive activity, helps people manage stress and implement physical exercise and a healthy diet.
"We took the personal-trainer approach and worked with the person to develop a program of physical and cognitive activity," Dr. La Rue said. "The aim was to increase the activity in both of those realms and supplement it with education."

The results were encouraging. Though no concrete "medical" improvements could be verified – that wasn't the study's intent – 93 percent of the Take Charge participants reported they found the year-long module helpful. And 87 percent thought the sessions increased their brain activity.

Take Charge didn't answer all of the questions posed by this rapidly expanding field. But it did make people feel more mentally active and alert. That's something, and at the very least, engaging in activities that increase your brain fitness "can't hurt you," as Dr. La Rue tells the people with whom she works.

Who knows? The Brain Fitness movement could be the first step toward a future where "we'll hire personal trainers for cognitive fitness," Dr. La Rue said. "We already hire them for physical fitness."

Date Published: 11/17/2008

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