Keeping the mind active may delay physical symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease for some people

Published 24 February 2016

Research published today (Wednesday 24 February) in Neurology suggests that staying in school for longer and keeping your brain busy may help to delay some of the brain changes in Alzheimer’s disease, but only for people with the ApoE4 gene.

393 people aged over 70 without dementia were divided into groups based on their education history, the extent to which they kept mentally active in middle age, and whether they had the ApoE4 gene (which is associated with higher risk of Alzheimer's disease). Researchers looked for signs of neurodegeneration that are often associated with Alzheimer's disease including build ups of the sticky amyloid protein.

People who had the ApoE4 gene along with at least 14 years of education, and kept mentally active in mid-life had lower levels of amyloid build ups in their brains. For people without the ApoE4 gene, education and mental activity appeared to have little effect on the level of neurodegeneration seen.

This research supports previous findings that suggest more education and keeping the mind active in mid-life can help to reduce the risk of dementia for some people. The underlying reasons for this are still unclear, but this study indicates that genetics could have a part to play.

It is important to note that the researchers were only looking at physical changes in the brain and didn't test other important aspects of dementia such as difficulties with memory and thinking. Additionally, the study didn't take into account those who went on to develop Alzheimer's disease.

Dr Doug Brown, Director of Research and Development at Alzheimer's Society, said:

'Alzheimer's disease is caused by a complex mix of genetics and lifestyle, and it could be that particular groups of people may benefit from making certain lifestyle changes to reduce their risk. This research supports this suggestion by showing that people with the ApoE4 gene – which increases the chances of developing Alzheimer's disease – seem to have better brain health if they keep their minds active throughout their lives.

'Although people with the ApoE4 gene have a higher risk of dementia, there are things they, and indeed all of us, can do to cut that down. This might include staying fit and active, not smoking, and keeping the brain busy – this could be through reading or playing games and puzzles.'

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