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See Inside June 2005

Delaying Dementia



For a decade, neurologists have produced studies that suggest that adults who regularly challenge their brains in later life succumb to dementia less often, less severely and at older ages than seniors who are intellectually lazy. The mature brain can grow new neural connections and strengthen weak ones, if exercised. As with muscles, “use it or lose it” applies. A new study, however, suggests that mental activity in young adulthood also helps keep dementia at bay later.

A team of psychologists at the University of Toronto scanned the brains of 14 adults ages 18 to 30 and 19 seniors beyond age 65 as they performed various memory tests. Among the older subjects, those who had had the most education during their youth did the best and used their frontal lobes for recall. The top young participants primarily used their medial temporal lobes, which are employed to encode and think about new information. The team concluded that seniors may have trouble recruiting the temporal lobes and therefore rely on the frontal lobes—responsible for general cognition—to help out. But apparently, having pushed the brain further during their college days made that substitution more effective.

So if you want to be a clear thinker, or at least try to forestall dementia in your golden years, get as much formal education as you can when you are young. If you’re already past that stage, then the experts say you should start challenging yourself now. Read, write, take classes, play cards, start a new hobby. Keep learning. Stay connected with friends and family, too; the interactions stimulate memory, concentration and mental processing. Also, control high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and obesity; increasing evidence shows that these threats also predispose people to dementia.

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